Transformations at the 'Miracle Barn:' Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship helps disabled people through equine-assisted therapy

Sunday, March 4, 2012
Landon Southard rides Bo, a Welsh pony, with assistants Jane Mattione, left, Quinn Strong and Varina Luttrell during a lesson Thursday with Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship. (Fred Lynch)

Sitting at the top of Hope Hill in Oak Ridge is a facility affectionately named the Miracle Barn. It's here where volunteers with Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship help individuals with disabilities transform their lives through equine-assisted therapy.

Fifty-four-year-old David Bragg of Cape Girardeau was confined to a wheelchair when friends told him about the benefits of equine therapy two years ago.

"I was willing to do anything within reason," Bragg said. "Although I was skeptical of how much good it would do."

During the orientation, Bragg was shown the facility and the specialized equipment available to help him during therapy. Facility personnel spoke with him about specific goals, and steps were outlined for how to reach them.

Initially, Bragg had to use a device that lifted him out of his wheelchair and placed him on the back of his horse.

Michael Foltz takes a ride on Siri, with assistant Helen Roach during a lesson Feb. 23 with Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship. (Fred Lynch)

"I was self-conscious," Bragg said, referring to the harness. "I thought maybe I would do this once or twice. I never dreamt it would be something I would stick with."

Equine therapy strengthens core muscles. It helps students learn the rhythm of walking and widens the pelvis. The heat from the horse loosens muscles.

"The staff and volunteers are just wonderful and make you feel at ease," Bragg said. "They give you individual attention."

Last year, Bragg began a new drug for multiple sclerosis treatment.

"Strengthening muscles made my body more responsive to being able to walk better, and exercise helped the new drug work better," Bragg said. "It took a few weeks, and before long I was able to get around a whole lot easier."

Nine months ago Bragg began using his walker the majority of the time. He has only used his wheelchair twice since then.

Recently he was able to ride his horse through an obstacle course.

"[It] really gives you a sense of accomplishment to learn how to do that and learn how to ride properly," Bragg said. "It gives you self confidence to try other things."

Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship is a Premier Accredited Center under the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, International (PATH). This accreditation program ensures that a facility meets or exceeds established industry standards and provides excellence in providing equine-assisted activities. Once accredited, a facility must be recertified every five years.

"Two women were just trained to become teachers," said Mary Ann Mann, the facility's program director. "We have five certified, active teachers."

Michael Foltz rides with "airplane arms" with assistants Kristin Cook, left, and Andrea Artadi during a lesson Feb. 23 with Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship. (Fred Lynch)

The facility currently has 29 students ranging from 4 to 71 years old, all facing a wide array of challenges. Each one has a personal plan drafted before his or her session outlining goals, and during the sessions progress evaluations are done.

Faith Arbeiter, a petite, 4-year-old, came to Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship last year with hearing loss and balance problems. During her first session, her "walk on" command to her horse was barely audible. Now she yells out exercises to the drill team as they warm-up to prepare for their upcoming horse show.

"She's getting therapy, but she doesn't realize it. It's just fun," said Faith's mother, Pam. "When she started, she hardly talked at all, she didn't project. She couldn't go up and down stairs without losing her balance. Now she flies up the stairs and rides a bicycle without training wheels."

With only two paid staff members, the organization relies on its dedicated volunteers. Jerre Hall serves as the volunteer coordinator.

"There are so many ways to volunteer," said Hall. "We are constantly looking for volunteers and constantly training. We need help with horses, maintenance, paperwork, fundraising, sidewalkers (walking beside the horse and student during lessons) and moving hay."

Therapy is provided using horses from a herd of 12, with sizes ranging from miniature to draft horses.

Behren Truemper, 7, from East Perry is in his second session.

"It's good for his hips. [It] stretches his hips in the right way," said Bryan Truemper, Behren's father. "They choose a horse that is the right width for his needs."

Most kids attending the facility do not consider going to the barn as therapy.

"Kids get attached to the horses," said Hall.

Landon Southard spins the wheel to choose a task during a lesson Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012 with Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship. (Fred Lynch)

Student Emily Peters, 9, said, "Doc, he's my favorite. Me and Doc, we're soul mates."

Hall said many individuals have called about donating a horse. However, she said not all horses are well suited for that type of work.

One concern of facility organizers is finding forever homes for horses that are ready for retirement.

"Sometimes it's difficult finding homes for horses that have been so loyal to us," Hall said.

Discussions are underway about how to enhance the services the facility offers to the community. One option organizers would like to offer is the PATH sanctioned "Horses for Heroes" program for veterans. They are currently working on fundraising and connecting with veterans' groups.

"We would like to add some more teachers," said Hall. "We could add more days of lessons, and we want to go back to offering Saturday lessons. Then we would need more volunteers and could help more students."

To volunteer or get additional information about Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship, call 573-788-2100 or go to the organization's website at

To get more information on becoming a certified teacher, go to

A fundraiser will be held for the organization on March 27 at Gordonville Grill, with 10 percent of proceeds going to Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship.

The organization's annual horse show will take place in May and a 5K run is being organized for June.

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