Sixteen-year-old Heidi Bishop was born with cerebral palsy and has always been wheelchair-bound. She had never known the simple joy of walking — until she got on the back of a horse.
"Straddling the horse gives her a feeling of sitting, helps her learn about balance," explains her mother, Susan. "But being able to sit there as the horse moves gives her a feeling of what it is like to walk, what it is like to move on your own. She wouldn't get that any other way."
One look at Heidi's face tells you the joy that is involved. "I like it," she says. "It's fun."
Often, says her mother, Heidi will be giggling by the time her riding session ends.
But pleasure is not the only thing the horseback ride brings to Heidi. There are therapeutic benefits as well. "She's only been here a couple of months, but her progress has been amazing," says Susan.
At first Heidi leaned so far forward, they had to put two pillows in front of her to keep her sitting up straight. Now, they are down to one pillow, and soon, says Doug Dusenberry, who directs the therapy session, Heidi may not need any pillows at all — and maybe not even the sidewalkers who help her stay in position as they move around the arena.
That idea both pleases and astounds her mother. "Doug thinks she will be able to ride independently. That's hard for me to fathom, but it would be such a great thing for Heidi."
On the other hand, great things are just par for the course at Courage Reins. This nonprofit horse therapy organization was founded on the belief that "experiencing, riding and driving horses could significantly improve the lives of individuals with physical, emotional and developmental disabilities."
And Dusenberry, who is trained as a physical therapist, has seen that firsthand.
The simple act — or not-so-simple, for some of these riders — of sitting on the horse builds muscle tone, works with balance and posture, increases hand-eye coordination, builds spatial awareness and does myriad other beneficial things. It can also build self-esteem, provide a new outlook and help mentally as well as physically.
"We're not doing magic here," he says. "There are no tricks. This does a lot of the things regular physical therapy can do, but the thing that sets it apart is that it does it in a more relaxed setting. There's an element of fun, of socialization. It's often easier to communicate, to verbalize what's going on."
Dusenberry has been doing equine therapy for about eight years — he worked at the National Ability Center in Park City before being hired as executive director of Courage Reins last fall and has an advanced certification from the North American Riding for Handicapped Association (NARHA), a national organization promoting this kind of therapy.
In that time, he's seen almost every disability there is. He has worked with children as young as 2 and stroke victims as old as 90. And there have been few, if any, who haven't benefited from work with horses, he says.
The range of disabilities that can be treated include autism, brain injuries, developmental delays, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Down syndrome, spina bifida, stroke, visual and hearing impairments, mental retardation.
"Total quadriplegics would not be able to do much, and maybe those with severe osteoporosis. But I'd say that 95 percent of all disabilities would be helped," he says. The benefits have been well-documented through research and practice, and many insurance companies will now pay for this kind of therapy, he adds.
Allison Mitton has also seen the benefits riding horses provides. Her 3 1/2-year-old sons, Alexander and McKay, were also born with cerebral palsy. Two-thirds of a set of triplets, they were born at 6 months along with their sister Abby, who has no development problems.
The boys have been coming to Courage Reins for several months now, and they love it, says Mitton. "It's so fun for them to be around the horses and to be able to do something this independent."
And, she says, they are getting so much stronger. "At first, they couldn't sit up at all. Now they can sit for long periods of time."
It is very, very hard for them. "Telling them to hold their heads up is like you or I doing 10 sit-ups," she says. But she can see that they get better each time.
Even without that, she says, the riding experience would be worth it. "They always have such happy smiles on their faces. They love it."
The fun the riders have at the sessions is matched by the enthusiasm of the volunteers. "It's very rewarding personally," says Eric Owens, a BYU student who has been volunteering at Courage Reins for a couple of months. "Working with the kids, seeing their improvement, the progress they make is exciting."
He has been working with Heidi for several weeks. "At first, she totally relied on us for support. Now, we're more of a safety net. She's come so far."
The volunteers help with grooming the horses, with helping riders stay in position and even lead the horses around the arena. There is a rhythm you get into, they say, and you have to get used to starting and stopping to minimize the thrust on the rider.
But, it's a great experience, they say. "I love it," says Jenny Riggs. "I was kind of nervous at first. But I love working with the kids and with the horses. It's addictive. I want to come here more and more."
About 60 volunteers work in the program, says Dusenberry. "We couldn't do it without them." As a nonprofit group, Courage Reins runs on volunteers and donations and grants. He is the only paid employee.
Courage Reins charges $25 an hour for the therapy sessions, which, he says, is actually below what it costs if you consider all the maintenance and upkeep. "As our funding increases, we hope to implement a sliding scale. We basically just try to meet our expenses."
Classes are held on a semester basis; clients usually come once a week. Courage Reins has been working out of a donated arena in Lehi. In April they will be moving to a brand-new, 14-acre facility in Highland.
That will not only give them an indoor and outdoor arena but also access to more horses, so they can add more students. "We have four horses of our own, and we'll be able to use six or eight more."
The Highland facility was built and donated by Sterling Gardner, who is president of the Courage Reins board of directors.
Gardner himself first got involved in the program as a volunteer. "I read an article in a horse publication and called them. They invited me down to participate."
He'll never forget that first time. "I was walking with a boy who was about 5 and he had a speech impediment and had trouble walking. His mother was there, and we got talking about disabled children. About halfway through, the boy spoke up and said so proudly, 'I'm not disabled, am I Mom?' I just melted. I've been hooked on the program ever since. It does so much for these kids."
Barbara Ward, a member of the Courage Reins board of directors who also works as a volunteer, agrees. "It's an awesome program. Sometimes we get mired down in all the financial concerns of keeping everything going. Then you come out here and see what it's all about. It gives you a great, big, warm, fuzzy feeling."
You see such improvement in the riders, she says: kids whose first words they ever say are "walk on," the phrase used to start the horses. "We had a girl who could hardly stand, and three months later she was standing on top of the horse on tippy toes."
They have kids in wheelchairs who have never been able to be independent and just go where they want, says Dusenberry. "We put them on the back of a horse, and pretty soon they are guiding it down the trail all by themselves. I can't say I know exactly what that feels like, but it must be pretty incredible."
It is the feeling reflected in Heidi's giggles, in little McKay's and Alex's smiles and on the faces of every other student who comes here.
It's the feeling you get at this place — where Courage Reins and the spirit soars.
Courage Reins will be holding an open house at its new Highland facility on Saturday, March 31, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Current and prospective students, parents, volunteers and interested community members are invited. The address is 5870 W. 10400 North in Highland, which is just south of the Point of the Mountain in Utah County. Courage Reins is also interested in donations of tack and equipment as well as time and money. Spring semester classes begin April 5. For information on any of these activities, call 768-2009.