Equine therapy offers physical, mental, emotional benefits

Erin Wood

Sometimes, even adults need to be tricked into therapy.

Nancy Hasenstein-Kleffman, a teacher in Peoria High School's orthopedic and physical therapy program, has cerebral palsy and has always dreaded the mundane, yet painful therapy sessions to exercise and loosen her muscles.

About a year ago, while taking her class on a field trip to the Central Illinois Riding Therapy stables in East Peoria, Ill., Hasenstein-Kleffman discovered the value - and the thrill - of riding horses.

"I've always been very spastic and very tight," she said. "But riding has helped me loosen up, all while I'm doing something fun."

Hasenstein-Kleffman is one of the roughly 60 people that CIRT, a local not-for-profit organization, helps each week. The riders have a variety of disabilities, from cerebral palsy to Down syndrome to autism. For $15 a lesson, they ride, feed and groom one of CIRT's dozen horses.

The benefits range from physical to mental and even emotional. Riders get to stretch out their muscles in an activity that seems like anything but therapy, while also boosting their confidence.

"It's just something about horses," CIRT Executive Director Judy Kruse said. "When the riders learn to lead the horses, they feel in control, when maybe they can't say the same about other areas of their lives."

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of CIRT, the organization hosted the Festival of Horses, a daylong event at Weaver Angus Farms in Peoria that included demonstrations by riders, a polo match and a parade of breeds. The fundraiser also attracted the public with games and face painting for children as well as food and a silent auction.

For 7-year-old Gabe Deppolder of Chillicothe, Ill., being able to ride a horse each week makes all the difference, said his mother, Trisha. Doctors have not been able to diagnose Gabe, but before he began riding he had a hard time physically changing positions, and he also has delayed responses.

"I have really seen the benefits of it," Deppolder said of Gabe's lessons. "It helps get everything in line. When he stops riding, everything gets scattered again. This is his baseball or basketball. He'll never be able to strive in those sports, but he can excel in this."

Gabe proudly rode his favorite horse, Strawberry, on Saturday afternoon with the help of CIRT volunteers guiding the horse on either side. Gabe waved to an attentive audience that cheered him on as he led Strawberry in a circle around Weaver Farms.

But the students aren't the only ones who benefit. For parents such as Deppolder, CIRT serves as a sort of support group.

"Everybody is in the same boat," Kruse said. "I think parents benefit from this as much as the kids do. They all need something like this that isn't quite normal therapy."

Erin Wood can be reached at 686-3194 or ewood@pjstar.com.