At Cedar Creek, riding brings fun, health and healing
Horses have been companions for humans for as long as we can remember. They pull heavy weights. They take us faster than our feet can go.
But at one mid-Missouri center, horses also are helping people with their physical, mental and emotional health, even in a post-COVID world with virtual options for healing.
A new season of therapy sessions began at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center in September, but this is by no means the first rodeo for the organization.
On a recent autumn Thursday, volunteers like Leighten Kaiser prepared for the second class of the day - turning the water troughs around, helping riders into the corral and taking a few laps around the track before warm-up exercises.
The riders go through a series of movements, twisting their torsos and stretching out their ankles. It’s just one part of equine therapy — helping riders with their physical movement.
The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, or PATH, said equine-assisted therapy can help people with physical disabilities improve their strength, balance and coordination.
“So for example, if you take somebody with a physical disability, somebody in a wheelchair, somebody who walks with braces, and you put them on the back of that horse, that movement from the horse will go up through that rider's pelvis and their back," said Karen Grindler, executive director of Cedar Creek. "And that rocking, rotating movement, imitating the human walk, will help with subtle suppling, stiff joints, strengthening large muscle groups."
"[I]f you take somebody with a physical disability ... and you put them on the back of that horse, that movement from the horse will go up through that rider's pelvis and their back," says Karen Grindler, executive director of Cedar Creek. "And that rocking, rotating movement, imitating the human walk, will help with subtle suppling, stiff joints, strengthening large muscle groups."
This is Grindler's 34th year helping people through equine-assisted therapy, and she says her favorite part of the job is welcoming in new riders.
Seras Horton is one of the riders new to Cedar Creek. She had a pulmonary hemorrhage right after she was born, and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and autism spectrum disorder shortly after that. Then Boone County Family Resources introduced Rachel Horton, Seras's mother, to equine therapy.
"I didn't expect it, but early intervention really has just saved her world," Rachel Horton said. "I mean, before she could barely walk, she would drag her foot behind her. [She] just looked like a different child.”
Even little things like wearing helmets during class has helped Seras feel more comfortable with her mother doing her hair.
And the intervention isn’t just for kids with physical disabilities.
Sharon White-Lewis is a professor at the University of Missouri: Kansas City. She says in one of her research articles that equine-assisted therapy can improve self-esteem and self-confidence, as well as feelings of freedom and competency.
“It's the emotional bond that is created between the human and the animal," Grindler said.
Joe Bryan is a veteran who served in Vietnam, and has built a bond with a mule named Josie. He comes out to Cedar Creek’s sessions to ride Josie for about an hour. But first he takes his time to pet Josie and brush her. Bonding with horses can help veterans when they come back home with PTSD.
“That's a reason I originally came out here seven years ago with a group from the VA riding horses," Bryan said. "It just relaxes you and gets you away from everything.”
Bryan said his grandmother had a farm in Callaway County where he used to spend his summers riding, as a kid.
"And then I went in the Marines," Bryan said. "When I came back, I searched for a place to ride and this is it.”
Bryan used to come out to Cedar Creek with the VA but said they haven’t been back as a group since the pandemic started. He chalked it up to the way some COVID cancellations never make a comeback.
It’s something a lot of organizations are experiencing, Cedar Creek included. They’re operating fine, but with half of the volunteers, Grindler said, citing COVID as a possible factor.
But even the volunteers have something to gain from equine therapy.
Leighten Kaiser is a master’s student at the University of Missouri. She started coming to Cedar Creek for a class during her sophomore year, and has been helping out ever since. One thing she loves is being able to get away from the city.
Even as Cedar Creek adapts to a new normal, the riding, the high-fives, and the healing continues.
“My dad, I tell him I'm coming out here," said Kaiser. "He says, ‘Oh, you're going to go get your horse therapy.' So it literally is therapy for the riders and therapy for all the volunteers. It’s a great time.”