Walk On: Therapeutic Riding Program Offers Many Benefits
“You have to believe in magic, the magic of horses,” says Kelly McCrann, about her experience with her son, Jonathan, as he was learning to ride a horse as a toddler.
He was just 2 years old and enrolled at Sandhills Children’s Center when she first heard about riding therapy. He didn’t walk or talk, so she thought it might be a good activity to enhance his days.
Jonathan was born with congenital hydrocephalus, a rare condition caused by a buildup of excess cerebrospinal fluid in the brain at birth. The extra fluid increased pressure on his brain, which caused brain damage resulting in mental and physical problems.
McCrann met with Ronni Meltzer, who started the local Prancing Horse program in 1984. After Jonathan joined the program, she recalls that Meltzer called her up and told her, “He’s going to talk, and his balance will improve.’ ”
Sometime later, McCrann, and her husband, Mike, went over to the Prancing Horse riding center, and the next thing they saw was magic.
Jonathan was sitting tall on Foxy, one of the original horses in the program, attentively holding the reins.
“So Meltzer tells us that Jonathan was going to communicate, and we looked at each other, like ‘Yeah, right.’ ” Then, Meltzer asked Jonathan, “What do you say to tell a horse to go?” and Jonathan answered firmly, “Walk on.”
“Well, we looked at each other in total amazement,” she says. “Jonathan actually responded to that question and then another. That made us believers; he’d never responded to any question before.”
Jonathan was pulling against all odds. He was a kid who was legally blind. He was having seizures, and riding with a bulb at the back of his head from the surgery to place the third shunt that helped drain the fluid from his brain. As a result of a stroke, he also developed cerebral palsy and autism.
“They wanted to institutionalize him,” says Mike McCrann. “So it was incredible, just the emotion of the moment, to see him, hear him say those words — ‘Walk on.’”
Jonathan wanted to walk, too — and without the aid of his small walker. In time, and with lots hard work, the riding program at Prancing Horse helped stabilize and strengthen his core muscles and improve his balance. By the time he was 4, he had gained enough strength and self-confidence to surprise his mother by walking across their front porch without the walker — and he’s never stopped.
Exercise for Mind and Body
During Jonathan’s classes, which are held today at the Muddy Creek Farm in Southern Pines, the program instructor, Susan Price, takes the students through a series of stimulating exercises for their bodies, as well as their brains.
They will lie back on the horse, roll around, reach up, whirl their arms, play catch and sit tall — making them stronger and very confident in their physical abilities.
An easy trail ride into the woods challenges them to identify objects, such as letters, numbers or colors. They learn to count by reaching high and grasping objects. Some days, they spend time brushing the horse or feeding it — learning how to make the horse feel good. They take these skills and learn to brush their own hair, or feed themselves, which builds independence.
“When they are on their horse they realize they are just like everybody else; they don’t have walkers, wheelchairs or crutches,” says Kelly McCrann. “They’re sitting on top of the horse feeling like a regular kid. It gives them a lot of freedom.”
The horses, which are well-cared-for and usually 8-10 years old, are selected by the Prancing Horse staff for their placid temperament. Each horse does exactly what the student asks. They stop, walk, turn right and left, all at the command of the rider, not the two-side-walkers or leader who walks with each student and their horse.
“Part of the rider’s learning experience is to not only give, but follow directions. This helps them follow directions at home,” McCrann says. “Jonathan’s learned how to put on his shoes and to wipe off the table after dinner. He understands the task and transfers the muscle memory — the same motion that he learns on horseback — to his everyday tasks here.”
Riding Is Stimulating
The McCranns note that the day he rides his demeanor changes. “He’s juiced up all day. He lives internally and thinks about things a lot before he talks about them. The riding is very stimulating for him so he talks nonstop when he gets home.”
Kelly McCrann serves on the board for Prancing Horse, and her father endowed the organization in 2004 in honor of Jonathan.
“The program has meant everything to us,” she says. “When you have a child who does not communicate, it’s hard to know what to do for them. For him to be able to tell us now when something hurts, or that he’s hungry or thirsty, those are basic things, but they are everything.”
Today, Jonathan is 28, and he still rides once a week, but now on a horse called C-Bar. At first he was a bit confused to be riding a new horse, but now he has developed an easy, magical connection with C-Bar, which brings him great happiness.
“When the students trot, they just giggle,” says McCrann. “They’re having a wonderful time. They just giggle and giggle. They feel like kids — it’s a joy that comes from deep — in here,” she says as she takes a breath and places her hands on her chest while looking for words to fill her thought. “They’re normal, doing normal things, and with friends.”
Claudia Watson is a local freelance writer and may be reached at email@example.com.
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