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Riding For Wellness
Equestrian Riding Therapy at the Summit Equestrian Center
By Jim Mount
Fort Wayne Reader
“Keep your heel down and your toes up! That's it, maybe sit back a little bit. That's it, that's it, you're doin' really good now!” Allison Wheatons' voice echoes in the arena, calling out instructions and encouragement to two little girls each riding on their own horse.
The arena is an enclosed area with overhead lights about the size of a football field. The ground underfoot is beach sand and the horses trot casually by as their riders move with the rhythm of the trot. This is the Summit Equestrian Center, and instructor Allison Wheaton has two of her charges up on their respective horses. But this isn't your average horse-riding lesson; this is what's called Equestrian Therapy. Essentially, horse riding as therapy. The program is offered to not only disabled kids but to all sorts of people who face physical, emotional and, as Wheaton describes it, “a wide variety of challenges as a way to give them an outlet, something physical to do.”
Going on two years, the program touts some great benefits in helping kids and other people with disabilities become stronger physically and psychologically. “They can be competitive, they can be active,” Wheaton points out. “It's a great source of exercise and stretching and physical therapy, but it's also fun and a chance for them to get out of their regular routine and to get into a different environment, an old-school, slower paced way of doing something different.”
Who is Allison Wheaton and what got her involved with horses? Most people who work with horses probably follow a trajectory from early in their childhood, and Wheaton is no different. “I grew up as a horse-crazy girl with all her Little Ponies and Breyer horses,” Wheaton fondly recalls. “We didn't live anywhere near there were horses until I was 8 but I remember being drawn to them well before that. When my family moved to North Carolina, we had some amazingly kind and patient neighbors with horses that allowed us to get involved with their worlds.”
Currently Wheaton is a PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) Intl Therapeutic Riding Instructor with the PATH member center. Wheaton explains PATH is “an organization that strives to help the therapeutic riding industry develop credibility in the alternative therapy world, expand continuing education and to promote safety.”
“Their infrastructure for developing a sustainable program has really been a tremendous asset,” she adds.
Wheaton first conceived the idea for Equestrian Riding Therapy when she was working in Seattle in a completely different career that she found enjoyable but personally unfulfilling. At a friend’s suggestion, she looked into a therapeutic riding program located close by and liked what she saw;
“When I saw the program, I was hooked,” Wheaton says. “I saw all these amazing people working together with horses to help people with disabilities in a tangible, fun way. I started volunteering with a local program when I moved to Fort Wayne and haven't looked back.”The benefit for Wheaton in choosing this career path have been enormous in allowing her to help people with special needs, but what is it exactly about horse riding that is therapeutic?
“Riding on a horse actually is the only thing that duplicates the same muscles you use when you walk,” Wheaton explains. “So a lot of the same four muscles are moving you from side to side and front to back, all your different vortices are moving. Also the cadence of the horse — the one-two, one-two — is just like when we walk, so it helps with balance and helps with a lot of regulation that way. As an example, someone with an irregular walking stride or someone in a wheelchair doesn't get that regular rhythm . It also helps with their inner ear fluid as well as all these different components come together to help them physically.” When Wheaton walks the horses with their riders to the ground outside the terrain itself becomes an exercise course for both rider and horse. Up inclines and down declines and up, down and around small hills Wheaton at times leads and at times steps back watchfully as rider and horse navigate, the riders moving with the rhythm of the horse, working to maintain balance in the saddle as they climb the hilly terrain.
Wheaton has high hopes for the future of the program having watched it grow the past few years;
“My hope for the SEC is that it grows in a sustainable way to help the Fort Wayne Community.” Wheaton says, “Across the country, communities our size have thriving therapeutic riding programs to fill voids left by traditional therapies. Horses are incredibly intuitive. My thoughts on how they contribute to people physically, emotionally, spiritually and however else are what moved me to get involved with this industry.” The benefits of the program are striking for the riders. Wheaton sees changes in riders who've been with the program awhile from the time they fist began in physical areas such as core strength and flexibility but also in areas of confidence as well, becoming more assertive and engaged in social settings.
In sustaining the program and growing it into the future, Wheaton hopes to involve the community. “One thing we're starting to spread the word about is helping to subsidize the expenses of the lessons, because to be able to put on therapeutic riding lessons takes a lot of manual labor, overhead is crazy, just to feed and take care of a horse to help keep them in their best condition. Right now we subsidize our expenses with doing recreational riding lessons and boarding horses and as we move into our non-profit status we want to move more into doing some fund-raising as well as encouraging the community to get more involved in trying to help develop a scholarship program.”
“Our riding lessons are $25 for a thirty minute riding lesson,” Wheaton explains, “ $35 for a forty-five minute lesson but it takes about $120 to put on the forty-five minute lesson between all the overhead and insurance etc. And that's what we're trying to get the word about, getting more people involved, more volunteers to help support the community and helping these great kids.”
For more information or to get involved you can check out the website at www.summitequestrian.org