Horses and Healing

Local therapeutic equestrian center brings hope and happiness to people with special needs

Written by Liza Winkler | Photography by Hallie Garrett

Cypress, TX News - As a young child, Lauren Igler had difficulties with depth perception, coordination, and balance due to cerebral palsy, which affected her mobility in early development. She began speech therapy at 18 months of age. At 8 years old, she could still only say about 10 simple words and communicated primarily with an electronic communication device. But a horse would change all of that.

Igler was born with cerebral palsy, which affects her coordination and balance

Igler was born with cerebral palsy, which affects her coordination and balance

 

Climbing a Mountain
“Three months into riding at SIRE,” Lauren’s mom, Ladana remembers, “I saw Lauren go up the stairs at her brother’s school. She was clinging to that cinder block wall, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh – her depth perception!’” Before, climbing stairs would have been like climbing a mountain. Watching her daughter negotiate a previously insurmountable terrain, Ladana realized that the therapeutic riding had triggered something. “Riding stimulated that knowledge of the difference between ‘up’ and ‘down.’ Now, she knows to step up onto the curb or step down.”

Lauren is now 15 years old and has been riding horses at SIRE for seven years. Working with horses like Bud and Whiskey, she has made significant improvements, even beyond coordination and depth perception. “Within three years of riding, she was speaking so well that other people could understand her,” says Ladana. “She could say ‘Lauren’ and knew to answer appropriately. Today, we don’t need her communication device anymore. She speaks in sentences and speaks more clearly. It’s amazing.”

SIRE works with individuals with autism, cerebral palsy, strokes, and cognitive or emotional posttraumatic stress disorder

SIRE works with individuals with
autism, cerebral palsy, strokes, and
cognitive or emotional posttraumatic
stress disorder

Humble Beginnings
With locations in Hockley, Spring, and Fort Bend, SIRE has experienced phenomenal growth from its humble start at J Bar M Ranch 30 years ago with five clients and two ponies. The three sites now accommodate about 230 riders per week with 35 specially-selected horses, many of which are retired show animals. The facilities at SIRE in the Cy-Fair area are available to a variety of riders ranging in age from 3 years old to senior citizens with disabilities and medical conditions.

Horse Therapist
Shayna Bolton, site director and head instructor at SIRE in Spring, says about 60% of SIRE’s ridership comes from those who fall into the autism spectrum, but the instructors also work with individuals with cerebral palsy, strokes, and cognitive or emotional post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Therapeutic riding uses the horse almost as a therapist,” Bolton says. “We are there as therapeutic riding instructors, and we facilitate actions on the horse, but the horse does so much of the work. Riding can really help an individual with a physical disability or with cognitive, emotional, or psychological issues. It really touches the spirit, the mind, and the body – it covers the whole thing.”

Donors and Volunteers
As a non-profit organization, the heartbeat of SIRE’s facilities and horse therapy programs are donations and volunteers. “We don’t want to turn anybody away for financial reasons, and if somebody can’t pay the tuition, we work really hard to make sure they can ride with us,” Bolton explains. SIRE is always accepting and evaluating new horses as well. “We need horses that can tolerate individuals who do different things a regular rider wouldn’t do. They have to have the right temperament,” she notes.

Each rider also requires between one and three assistants as they ride. The horses may be the main event, but the dedicated volunteers who assist are instrumental to SIRE’s continuing success.

Jason Mickelis suffered from a stroke at 8 days old, which caused lasting brain damage

Jason Mickelis suffered from a
stroke at 8 days old, which
caused lasting brain damage

Jason’s Story
Leslie Mickelis’ 14-year-old son Jason developed a whole new passion for life since he began riding at SIRE seven years ago. Jason was born prematurely and as a result, both of his lungs ruptured. He then suffered from a stroke when he was 8 days old, which caused lasting brain damage.

“When he first started therapy, he had no balance. Literally, you would watch him, and he’d be sliding off the side. It never dawned on him that he was going to fall,” Leslie remembers. “Now, he has that sense of ‘I’m leaning over,’ and that balance has transitioned from when he is on the horse to when he is walking. His coordination has definitely seen a night and day difference.”

Leslie says that SIRE has been a “God send” to her family. “These kids spend so much time in therapy, and they get sick of it. But you can get them to do therapy on a horse, and they don’t think of it the same way.” CFM

LIZA WINKLER is a senior at Texas State University studying print journalism. She wishes nothing but happiness and hope for the riders at SIRE.