At Equest Center, Horses are Therapeutic

Julie Bitely

| 3 min read

Horses as therapy
Having a son diagnosed with autism changed Kathy Ryan’s perception of what being a mom would be like.
Ryan tried a lot of different programs to help her son with sensory processing issues, but couldn’t find a good fit for D.J. Pezzato, now 22.
When he was four, she decided to take him to the Equest Center for Therapeutic Riding in Rockford. At first, putting the helmet on made him scream, but once he got up on a horse, he was all smiles.
“He smiled the entire ride home,” Ryan said. “This was a place where he fit.”
It was also a place Ryan felt she fit and where her purpose as a mom took shape. Today, Ryan serves as the executive director for the nonprofit center, which is celebrating 25 years.
With a team of 34 horses of all different sizes and breeds, the center utilizes equine therapy to help riders with a variety of special needs including physical, mental, and social or emotional challenges. About 150 to 180 people ride at the center each week, all year round, with ages ranging from the very young to the very old. The program integrates academic, social and physical skills, using the horse as a catalyst.
Client Program Coordinator Kelly Alcock said every client has a plan tailored specifically to their needs. People with balance issues, spina bifida, and cerebral palsy might use therapeutic riding as a way to develop better control of their trunk and core muscles. People re-learning how to walk or dealing with multiple sclerosis might find that riding a horse helps to retain muscle tone in a way that conventional therapy might not. Horses with a faster step can help autistic individuals focus and can also help with stress relief and calming. Riding a horse can even help parapalegic patients remember muscle movement and stroke victims regain eye focus.
Instructor Beth Anderson said the warmth of the horses can help muscles relax. It’s also a way to receive therapy without it feeling like a chore.
“It’s such a fun therapy that people don’t even think of it as therapy,” Anderson said. “We just try to keep it really fun.”
Ryan said compared to a cold, sterile environment, the barn and riding stables at Equest provide a home-away-from-home setting.
“The kids don’t realize they’re working,” Ryan said.
Vocational programming available at Equest offers opportunities for people to come in and perform jobs such as cleaning the brushes and saddles. Seniors and military veterans are also able to ride horses through programs geared toward those populations. Some of the miniature horses go on visits to hospice patients and the center has partnered with Gilda’s Club to make the horses available for people who’ve lost a loved one.
The animals can even be utilized to teach life skills. The center works with some group homes who use their riding day as an exercise in helping their residents learn time management, proper public behavior, and other important lessons – riding the horse is the reward.
No matter why people come to Equest, they’re accepted with open arms. The emphasis isn’t on limitations, but rather, the amazing things individuals are capable of.
“They come here and no one’s judged,” she said. “Everyone’s accepted here.”
Ryan said while the people who work at the center certainly extend that hospitality, an even bigger welcoming presence are the horses themselves.
“They have their own language and they’re just very accepting,” Ryan said.
New classes start Sept. 14 at Equest. Ryan said there’s always a waiting list and the center is always looking for new volunteers, as well as donations.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like:
Photo credit: Julie Bitely

A Healthier Michigan is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.
No Personal Healthcare Advice or Other Advice
This Web site provides general educational information on health-related issues and provides access to health-related resources for the convenience of our users. This site and its health-related information and resources are not a substitute for professional medical advice or for the care that patients receive from their physicians or other health care providers.
This site and its health-related information resources are not meant to be the practice of medicine, the practice of nursing, or to carry out any professional health care advice or service in the state where you live. Nothing in this Web site is to be used for medical or nursing diagnosis or professional treatment.
Always seek the advice of your physician or other licensed health care provider. Always consult your health care provider before beginning any new treatment, or if you have any questions regarding a health condition. You should not disregard medical advice, or delay seeking medical advice, because of something you read in this site.