With big eyes and happy smiles, over 175 U.S. Marine Corps family members were introduced to therapeutic equestrian riding at The Shea Therapeutic Riding Center on Saturday March 30, 2013.
This day of fun in San Juan Capistrano brought together military families and horse-related therapy programs known to improve the lives of those with disabilities. Such diagnoses include autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, developmental delay, speech disorders and many others.
Janelle Robinson PT, the Shea Center’s therapy program director, conceived and created this unique daylong visit with Winona Britt, specialist with Camp Pendleton’s Exceptional Family Member Program. The purpose of EFMP is to address active duty family members’ special needs and help minimize the disruptions those needs cause the family.
Upon approaching the horses for the first time, the kids’ responses shifted slowly from fear and uncertainty, to big smiles and laughter as they eased toward, and eventually were helped onto the backs of the likes of Winnie the Pooh, Boog, Little Red and Bear.
In all, there were over 15 highly trained horses and their handlers participating. Riders and horses were paired together based upon their sizes and temperaments. For safety, two side-walkers flanked each youngster and a leader set the pace as the young riders walked and trotted their horses.
As therapist Robinson pointed out to parents on the sidelines, “Once a child is settled on the horse, the animal’s movement under the rider is equivalent to clinical therapy exercises that rotate the pelvis and build core muscle strength necessary for sitting up straight, standing, walking and balancing. Riding is also beneficial for speech and language disorders. It is a highly motivational setting for stimulating sensory processing, and the gross and fine motor skills needed for speech.”
Robinson went on to say, “During a normal riding session, the rider is moved around on the horse’s back to capture the effect of the horse’s wide range of motion. This kind of horseback riding, led by a therapist or trained instructor, is serious therapy in the form of playful activities and the source of many Shea Center success stories.”
Beyond horseback riding, other family stops during the day included feeding the horses, learning horse body language, arts & crafts, games, and photos with mini horse Benny. At noon, Ranch Hands catering served a family-style lunch of hot dogs and hamburgers.
The smiles on the faces of the young riders, their parents, the 125 assisting volunteers and a dozen staff members indicated a successful day. The military families discovered a possible way of helping support a family member with special needs, and The Shea Center identified riders who might benefit from private grants set aside for military families.
In the days that followed, appreciative parents wrote back to say, “The kids were smiling ear to ear and were beyond happy.” “My daughter told everyone she saw about riding the horses and the fun she had.” “The look on my son’s face was priceless.” “It was great to be somewhere that your child isn’t the ‘different’ one.” “The kids were so individually well taken care of by the volunteers.” “Above all, the horseback riding was the best.”
“Thank you, Shea Center.”
About The J.F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center: The Shea Center in San Juan Capistrano provides therapeutic equestrian programs for children and adults with special needs. It addresses over 65 physical, occupational, speech and cognitive disabilities. With more than 200 weekly clients and 200+ weekly volunteers, it is ranked as one of the top therapeutic equestrian centers in the U.S. For more information, go to www.sheacenter.org, or visit www.facebook.com/sheacenter. Content by The Shea Therapeutic Riding Center. Pictures by Barton MacLeod, Photographer