Hippotherapy in motion at Equest in Rowlett

This article was originally published by The Dallas Morning News on March 31, 2015.

For son Jonathan, born with cerebral palsy, Laura Lopez just wanted the simple things. At age 6, he couldn’t walk or speak, his hearing was impaired and he couldn’t drink from a cup without help.

Please, God. Just let me hear his voice. Let me see him take a step.
— Laura Lopez

Lopez, of Rockwall, scoured the Internet for any possibility that might give her son a better life. That’s how she learned about Equest, a Wylie-based equine therapy agency whose new facility at South Dallas’ recently opened Texas Horse Park will significantly boost its services.

After all the sessions spent with other therapists, “I really didn’t think it would be much help,” Lopez said. “I never thought a horse would make a difference for him. But it was completely the opposite.”

Like Lopez, many parents of kids facing physical, mental and emotional challenges are surprised by how much equine therapy can improve their conditions. Early last year, Colorado State University launched a five-year project to study the benefits of such therapy and gather existing research.

“We have clients that say their first words from the back of a horse,” said Lili Kellogg, Equest’s operations director. “Or maybe they can button their shirts, or swallow food, or their handwriting improves — things we take for granted.”

Kellogg recalled sitting in the bleachers at Equest’s Wylie facility with a woman who’d adopted a severely abused girl as a 3-year-old. At 10, the girl was among a number of children taking riding therapy classes. The children were lined up with their instructors, about to go through a trail pattern, when the girl’s horse sneezed. The girl laughed, and her mother suddenly went silent, a look of shock on her face.

“She said, ‘In the seven years I’ve had her, I’ve never heard her laugh,’ ” Kellogg said.

Expanding its reach

Equest’s gleaming South Dallas site, which includes an outdoor and covered arena, will not only reach a new population but ultimately expand its reach tenfold.

CEO Patrick Bricker said half of Equest’s 38 stalls at Texas Horse Park — also home to River Ranch Educational Charities — should be filled by year’s end, with regular classes starting by early June. The park’s proximity to the Dallas VA Medical Center will also bolster the agency’s Hooves for Heroes program for former service members.

Equest’s typical therapy horse works about 10 times weekly, with a service period of about five years. Autism has overtaken cerebral palsy as the agency’s most common client issue, with the disorder affecting a third of its clientele.

In all, the agency serves about 300 clients a year but now expects to interact with an additional 3,000-plus through public appearances and school field trips to the facility.

Some of those visits will feature miniature horses Equest calls “mini ambassadors.” Cisco and Dare, a pair of 36-inch-tall beige-and-white beauties, were already enjoying their moment in the sun at the park’s grand opening event Saturday.

On April 11, the minis will visit the Dallas Library’s Polk-Wisdom branch as part of the Big D Reads program, currently featuring Charles Portis’ novel True Grit. Such appearances will enable teachers to illustrate horse-related book passages with a live animal.

“We’re taking what’s in literature to real life,” Kellogg said.

By also allowing kids to interact with horses and teaching them to interpret the animals’ moods through visual cues, Equest also hopes to encourage socialization and empathy.

“You never know which kids it might motivate,” said Joan Cutler, Equest’s program director. “If you can teach them empathy, that carries over to every other part of their world.”

A range of issues

Animal-assisted therapy is said to aid a range of issues from bipolar disorder to post-traumatic stress, and, by giving individuals purpose outside themselves, it can foster self-esteem and independence.

For physically challenged clients, hippotherapy — hippo is the Greek word for horse — can be effective because the animals’ gait echoes that of humans, helping improve posture and core and muscle control.

Brooke Grall of Murphy discovered equine therapy while seeking out-of-the-box approaches to treat daughter Zoe, who was born with spina bifida and started using a wheelchair when she was 18 months old. Zoe started at Equest in the fall of 2013, when she was 3, riding sideways on a horse named Crunchie.

“She started out that entire hour the first time just crying,” Grall said. “It was so scary and different and she had never experienced anything close to walking before. But because the gait of the horse is so similar to that of a human, it was causing her muscles to actually feel like they were working. It allowed her hips to function the way they were designed to.”

By midyear she was straddling Crunchie; eventually her feet were in stirrups. Lately she’s been working on core strength and sitting tall, gaining confidence and stamina.

“Two weeks ago, she got to trot for the first time,” Grall said. “It was the most thrilling experience she’s ever had, with her hair blowing in the wind and giggling the whole way around the arena. It’s a big ego boost for her.”

For Rockwall’s Lopez, too, the therapy has been a godsend. While other boys Jonathan’s age whooped and climbed and ran and jumped, her son, now 7, seemed locked away behind a wall of silence and immobility.

But after Jonathan’s first session, his personality seemed to change. With some help, he took some small steps.

After the second, he sat up more straightly on his highchair and car seat. He didn’t need a pillow in front of him to keep him from collapsing forward.

Usually, as Lopez drove around doing errands, she’d need to stop to feed Jonathan. But this time she handed the cup to him, and he held it and started drinking.

What was going on?

Years of dealing with the challenges of cerebral palsy had been a series of defeats, maybes and not-yets. Over and over, Lopez had lost hope.

Then this. Now into his second year at Equest, Jonathan is nearly walking on his own.

“It has been a window in a dark room for me,” she said. “I can see the light. It may not make my child 100 percent normal, but it’s given him quality time. An opportunity to make a better life.”

For her, it’s a chance to more fully know her son. “That’s what this program gave me,” she said.

The real gift comes when Jonathan is on his ride, with Lopez in the bleachers, watching.

It’s something that otherwise never happens — unless he’s on the horse.

With every pass he makes, the boy sees his mom in the stands, and from the void comes a sound as his mouth opens wide.

Hi, he says.

Hi.

Hi.

AT A GLANCE: About Equest

The nonprofit was founded in 1981 and serves eight counties with clients ranging from 18 months into their 80s. Riding instructors are certified through PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horses) International. Much of its work is accomplished through volunteers, and the program offers scholarships and subsidies to help support its clients. The organization will hold a fundraising gala at Texas Horse Park from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. April 25. Tickets are $250, with tables available for $2,500.

CJ Bankhead