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Landscapes, Winter 2008

Horses with Heart

“When you put a paraplegic on a horse, it is just amazing to watch what happens. If they want to go right or left, or go over to that door, they can do so — possibly for the first time in their life!”
— Christina Moore
Cynthia Moore

Cynthia Moore

Cynthia Moore clearly recalls the day three years ago when Michael, a 30-something advanced multiple sclerosis patient, arrived in a wheelchair for his first horseback-riding session at All Star Equestrian Foundation near Mansfield, Texas.

"We put him on a Percheron. Even with five people helping, it took all of his strength for him to get on the horse. After two-and-a-half minutes, he was exhausted and had to get off," Moore says. "But a few days later, he called and told me he couldn’t wait for his next lesson. That short ride was the most satisfying thing he had done in a long time."

Today, Michael finishes a 45-minute class and is among the 110 clients who ride every week at All Star — usually on their doctors’ advice. Some riders have cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy or autism. Others have experienced emotional abuse or traumatic brain injuries. Still others are dealing with developmental delays or visual or hearing impairment.

And then there’s Sara, 9, who was born with a rare chromosomal disorder that caused spine tethering. "When Sara started coming here last winter, she had a curved spine. Now it’s straight, she’s running, and she has better balance," says her mother, Debra Burgett. "She just loves riding. I would recommend it to anyone."

The Horse as a Medical Tool

All Star is one of four premier accredited equine therapy centers in the Fort Worth area that offer therapeutic horseback riding to people dealing with physical, mental or emotional challenges. Therapeutic riding improves the rider’s physical, cognitive and emotional skills, using the horse to help the rider focus on skill development. In therapeutic riding, the rider learns to control the movement of the horse. In comparison, hippotherapy, which is offered at two of the other equine riding centers, refers to the use of the horse as a medical tool. It requires the student to respond to the horse’s rythmic and repetitive movements.

How Equine Therapy Helps

"The walking gait of a horse is just like ours, so in 45 minutes, the rider gets to feel what it’s like to walk evenly. It stimulates all the muscles and often helps the student’s own gait," Moore explains.

riding with instructor

Riding instructor Julie Rivard (in orange shirt) encourages a young rider.

"For stroke victims, riding helps them with their balance when one side of the body is affected," she says. It also helps riders to improve coordination and build upper body strength. For autistic clients, riding is very calming, and for paraplegics, the horse becomes a source of freedom.

"When you put a paraplegic on a horse, it is just amazing to watch what happens. If they want to go right or left, or go over to that door, they can do so — possibly for the first time in their life!" Moore says. "Riding is very empowering, like having a set of legs."

She notes that horseback riding also teaches clients that they can be with a large, overwhelming power and control it. "That’s why it’s so helpful for abuse victims," she explains.

riding with instructor

Julie Rivard tosses the ball to a young rider.

Moore became interested in therapeutic riding nearly 15 years ago, while working part time in a doctor’s office, where some patients were prescribed this therapy. A horseback rider herself, she started volunteering at a therapeutic equestrian center, eventually taking a full-time job in the office.

Working there inspired Moore to launch her own therapeutic riding operation. But first, she enrolled in a six-week intensive certification program offered by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, which regulates and accredits equine therapy centers. The program offered training in the various types of disabilities, how to work with riders, how to match the rider to the horse, and even how to use adaptive tack.

"Afterward, I knew this was the right thing for me to do," Moore says.

Financed by Lone Star Ag Credit

In 1998, she discovered an abandoned 33-acre horse farm — complete with a covered riding arena — for sale just 20 miles from downtown Fort Worth, and took it as a signal that the new business was meant to be. She and two friends soon purchased the property with financing from Lone Star Ag Credit and established All Star Equestrian Foundation, beginning with 22 clients.

As a nonprofit foundation, All Star operates largely with volunteer help, donated horses and a small staff "who work for next to nothing, because they just love it," Moore says. Fundraisers allow the All Star to set tuition fees at about one-third of actual costs and to provide scholarships.

Cynthia Moore

All Star serves approximately 300 clients a year with the help of some 60 volunteers.

Every week, approximately 60 volunteers show up on schedule to groom and prepare the horses for classes, assist the instructors, and clean the arena and stables. Sometimes, as many as 20 volunteers are needed to help with just eight students.

"The volunteers are the greatest," says Moore. "They’re just good people or they wouldn’t want to do this."

A Good Therapy Horse

Equally important are the horses. Friends frequently offer to donate horses for the therapeutic riding programs. But just because a horse is free doesn’t mean it will make the cut at All Star. A good therapy horse "knows what the rider can do," Moore says. "There’s something about their heart — they’re just caretakers."

The average age of All Star’s 17 horses is 12, and none are younger than five. "Because we are nonprofit, the horses have to be healthy. We can’t afford to pay large vet bills," she explains.

While All Star’s students are there for the benefits of physical and mental therapy, some also become skilled horseback riders. In fact, a number of students represent All Star Equestrian each year in the regional and state Special Olympics and the Chisholm Challenge, held during the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. The pride each competitor gains is just one more benefit of the program.

But for Moore, the reward is watching her horses help special-needs riders to reach their goals, expand their abilities and find joy in the process.

"Horseback riding just makes you feel good," she says.

For more information, go to www.allstarfoundation.org or call (817) 477-1437.

– Articles and photos by Janet Hunter