Therapy on horseback

Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Becki Nation, 14 of jackson, smiled with excitement as she was strapped onto the saddle. Becki has been attending therapy at the Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship in Oak Ridge for about 7 years. (Diane L. Wilson)

OAK RIDGE, Mo.

Becki Nation is confined to an electric wheelchair. But each Tuesday morning, the shy 14-year-old is able to move about without the help of steel and electricity.

For 45 minutes, Becki, who has cerebral palsy, rides a horse at an arena operated by Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship. And for that short time, she is free.

"She lives for this," Margie Nation, Becki's mother, said. "She cannot wait to come here."

Becki has been a part of the MVTH program since it officially began operating in February 2001. While there, Becki simultaneously has fun and works her muscles.

"Her voice doesn't carry real well," Margie Nation said. "So they make her say things like 'walk on ...' But to her it's just riding a horse."

The 34 participants in the program all have some type of disability, ranging from autism to cerebral palsy to spina bifida.

"It's fun and it helps you," said 15-year-old rider and volunteer Ashton Seyer, who has a learning disability.

Kara Mabry, a 19-year-old participant, volunteers and rides.

"Riding is good therapy," Mabry said. "They help kids physically and mentally."

Kelly Voyles drives her son, Luke, about two hours from Broseley, Mo., to MVTH. Luke, a 10-year-old, has Asperger Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. He doesn't like playing team sports but enjoys riding horses.

"Some kids are baseball players, Luke is a horse rider," Kelly Voyles said. "This is his extracurricular activity."

Lisa McArthur's son, Brandon, has Ataxia Telangiectasia, an extremely rare neurodegenerative childhood disease that affects the brain and other body systems. The Jackson resident said his disease hasn't progressed as he has become better at riding.

"Before, he couldn't sit up on the horse," Lisa McArthur said. "Now he can ride, hanging onto the stirrups by himself. This moves all of his muscles. It keeps him stable."

Most of the participants are under 18 years of age, but seven are adults, including a 54-year-old with an emotional disability.

While the young participants ride, most of the parents sit on a wooden bench and relax. The parents, "enjoy their position there," Shrum said. "They get to watch their kids have fun on a horse."

Karen McPhail, president of the American Hippotherapy Association, a group of medical professionals who use equine movement as a treatment strategy, said the act of riding benefits riders in many ways.

"Being on the back of the horse has the same rhythm as a human walk," McPhail said. "They learn to regulate their own responses. The horse is so coordinated that it helps make them more coordinated."

McPhail noted that horse therapy should be considered as learning life skills with a horse environment as a context.

"The goal isn't to make them better horse riders," McPhail said. "The goal is to make them more effective in their everyday lives."

The not-for-profit program, the only horse therapy operation within a 90-minute drive of Cape Girardeau, has come a long way since it began. Jana Rodgers, the program's founder, received a modest scholarship in 2000 from the Cape Girardeau Evening Optimists Club to start a therapeutic horseback riding program.

With that scholarship money, she bought equipment and began organizing ways to wrangle up volunteers. Rodgers held the first lesson at Flickerwood Arena in Jackson. That lesson had one rider, one horse and four volunteers.

After a few months, Rodgers was forced to move MVTH elsewhere. The program moved wherever a suitable location would have them.

Rodgers moved to Georgia in 2003 to be closer to family. She left the program in the hands of Leah Shrum, the current MVTH director. After Shrum took over, MVTH "became more professional, as far as training and advertising went," Margie Nation said.

Rodgers attributes the successes of the program after she left to Amy Jacquin, who took over as president of the MVTH executive board when the founder left. Jacquin, a former KFVS12 reporter-anchor, had a business mind and contacts that expanded the reach of the program, Rodgers said.

Three months ago, MVTH operations became centralized to a newly built arena located about 3 miles north of Oak Ridge. The new building was an expensive endeavor that has put the organization into debt, but Jacquin sees it as another necessary step in establishing themselves.

"Overall, $130,000 was spent on the building and land," Jacquin said. "It would have been much more that if things hadn't been discounted or donated."

During the summer, the operation runs on Tuesday mornings and evenings, Thursday nights and every other Saturday morning. The program is run by about 30 individuals -- three instructors, one instructor-in-training, eight board members and 20 core volunteers.

The group's instructors are a dedicated bunch. Instructor certification requires a six-month training process through the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.

Core volunteers range from first-timers to pros who have been the program since the beginning. One pro is 16-year-old Jesse Stewart, an Oak Ridge High School student who wants to become an instructor once he is 18.

"I've been here for five years," Stewart said. "I see it as part of my life."

Shrum said MVTH was doing everything they could to serve every individual wanting to participate.

"Currently, we've been able to meet that demand," Shrum said.

MVTH volunteers are continually searching for more volunteers and donations. They spend time at area 4-H clubs, Optimist and Lions clubs looking for anyone willing to give a little time or money to the cause.

"One student can take up to three volunteers," Betsy Rigdon, an instructor, said.

To increase awareness about MVTH, an open house will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. June 25. Anyone interested in the program is welcome to see the building and operation.

Shrum has two views of MVTH's future -- one is realistic and one is a dream. Realistically, she would like to see the program pay off the building's debt, recruit more instructors and volunteers and serve more participants.

Her dream is to see MVTH have at least one full-time instructor and paid support staff alongside the realistic goals. That would allow operations all week and even more participants to be served.

For more information, call 275-3040.

sludwig@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 211

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