Horse Therapy

By Henry Rome

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

insurance doesn't pay for it, and the medical field has yet to endorse it. Nevertheless, equestrian therapy for those with physical, cognitive, or emotional challenges is a new and growing field that has touched the lives of many. Programs featuring therapeutic riding are operating all over the country, and there's one on the Cape.

Once a week for two years now, 16-year-old Joe Eldredge makes the long trek from Chatham to East Falmouth. Joe has mental retardation, and today, as with many other days in the past, he is traveling to Elf n Wood Stables for what's known as horse therapy.

Joe Eldredge: "Trot! C'mon!"

Joe's self esteem has sky-rocketed since he arrived at Elf n Wood, according to instructor PJ Rainwater, something she attributes to riding Belgian-Thoroughbred Stanley. She says that Joe had not been too successful at sports before riding, but after coming here, she has seen a positive change. Joe says that he not only loves riding the horses, but also interacting with them.

Joe Eldredge: "I like riding these horses because afterwards I like putting them away and stuff like that, I also like to pet them, feed them. I also like to if I get here early to go back there and clean up."

The plan is simple: matching people with physical, cognitive, or emotional challenges with horses. Riding horses can help the disabled physically, by strengthening muscle tone and learning balance. But, riding also increases self-confidence and awareness of one's body, according to those involved in horse therapy program. Patty Krauspe's son Duke and daughter Carol have both participated in the program, and she says that Carol's riding has helped her both physically and mentally.

Patty Krauspe: "We originally came just for the therapy, it's a good therapy for muscle tone and strength, because we definitely had an issue with low muscle tone, so it was a good way to straighten out our back and strengthen our legs. Carol's involved in programs for swimming and track, but nothing where she could really unite with an animal, and they're both learning something and becoming very good friends."

Elf n Wood was started by vision therapist Ann Marie Corey in April of 2000. Corey and volunteers teach clients from ages three to forty-nine. The lessons run about an hour and there are usually two to a group. Clients learn every aspect of horse care, from grooming to feeding to riding. Almost no scientific studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of horse therapy, but all involved say that it helps. And because of this, horse therapy has also been given a boost by pediatricians who recommend kids to the program. Dr. Kenneth Colmer, the lead physician at Bass River Pediatric Associates in South Yarmouth says that he recommends one or two kids a month to horse therapy, because of its benefits to kids with any disability.

Dr. Kenneth Colmer: "I think they really feel good about it, when they ask the horse to do something and the horse does it, I think it's great for them. I think any kids with mental retardation, kids with Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy, kids with autism, pretty much any I think disability would benefit from horse riding."

Horse therapy is a growing field, with programs existing from Washington state to Arizona to Maryland. But, Elf n Wood fills a unique niche- it's the only horse therapy establishment on Cape Cod. And because of this, Corey says she feels an obligation to keep this program going, even when money is tight.

Ann Marie Corey: "The financial piece here is tough- it's a volunteer intensive program we always have to have volunteers for these kids to ride. It's always about the funding. Parents pay a certain portion of the lesson, but we have to fundraise or get grants or wherever, where we can get it from, we try to get it from to help sustain the program. And, I say we have to keep this going, because these kids have nowhere else to ride."

It's about six o' clock, and Joe Eldredge just finishing up his day riding. He spent the majority of the class riding without assistance, confidently trotting around the stable in his Manny Ramirez T-shirt and blue jeans. But, his day isn't over yet. Before Joe sets out on his long drive home, he makes time to reward Stanley with a quart of fresh strawberries.

Elf n Wood Stables
143 Currier Road
East Falmouth MA 02536
Tel: (508) 540-6183

Broadcast August 31, 2006

Henry Rome was the summer reporter intern at WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR Stations.