By Lisa Kimble
From the restricted confines of 12-year-old Elaina Valdepena’s wheelchair, dreaming big meant trying to imagine placing one foot in front of the other. Fetes like mounting and trotting a horse seemed improbable, if not impossible.
Until she met a horse named Penny four years ago, and later Cinnamon and Cricket. The equines have helped Elaina and countless others who are saddled with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges become stronger, more confident and experience a sense of freedom that eludes the disabled. “I like the horses” she gushes, waving her arms in the air, her face awash with joy.
In Elaina’s world, it was a long way up to the back of a horse from her wheelchair when she first came to the M.A.R.E. Therapeutic Riding Center west of Bakersfield. “She had not ridden a horse before and she used to be afraid of horses,” her grandmother Bobbie Smith says. Cerebral Palsy had weakened her muscles. But in four years, with the help of a leader and two side-walkers holding her brown leather riding boots big enough to fit over her leg braces, she straddled the horse and has made strides that amaze her caregivers. “Now she is able to sit up, sit on the toilet. This has helped her core muscles and balance,” adds her grandfather Tim Smith.
MARE, the acronym for Mastering Abilities Riding Equines is in its 23rd year, providing therapeutic equine-assisted activities. There are hundreds of programs like it around the world that combine many therapeutic treatments into one activity targeting a variety of diagnosis including Autism and Down Syndrome.
Horses have long been used to aid in physical and emotional therapies, helping to normalize muscle tone and improve social and psychological development. The three-dimensional movement of the horse’s back and the rhythmic, even steps mirror the human gait, providing the experience of what it feels like to walk unencumbered.
“I feel stronger,” Elaina says of her weekly mounted riding lessons. Like Elaina, four-year-old Mia Sturm’s time on the back of Lady, a Palomino haflinger pony, has been remarkable. “A neurologist had told us that any kind of animal therapy would be beneficial for her,” her mother Lisa Sturm says. Mia suffered a stroke during surgery when she was seven months old, leaving her with significant left-sided weakness and brain damage.
She was, at first, timid and scared. And there were tears. But it wasn’t long before she would cry when it was time to leave. “When we s
tarted, she barely spoke and was barely walking. Since then her speech has taken off and she has gained a lot of strength and this helps with her balance.”
No bigger than the pony’s head, blonde wisps of hair coming out of her helmet, Mia is dwarfed by Lady’s size, but sits atop her horse with the confidence of an Olympian. Side-walkers encourage her to use her left hand when gesturing to the orange cones inside the pen.
At the end of her lesson she returns to the barn and climbs a footstool to help tack the horse, brushing Lady’s sides. “We think this therapy is so nice because it is all encompassing, the whole thing, speech, occupational and physical therapy and working with her fine motor skills,” Lisa Sturm adds.
A critical component to MARE’s success is its team of volunteers, upwards of 100 men and women, like Carey Usrey, who do everything from mucking stalls to cleaning pastures. “I love the horses, the people and working with the students with the hippotherapy,” she says. “When I started there were a lot of students who were fearful and timid and they have come so far. This is a very healing place. It absolutely works.”
For Diane Hopkins, co-founder of the program that has put hundreds, if not thousands of children and adults on horseback over the past two decades, this is a labor of love. “Never in a million years did I imagine this,” Hopkins says. “It [MARE] is the love of my life.”
The fact that MARE remains such a vital part of the community, despite ebbs and flows in financial support is testament to the work done at the 10-acre site where hope and acceptance are harnessed in a saddle. “We are looking for funding to go forward,” said director Deborah Durkan.
Back in the barn, Mia Sturm is finished grooming Lady. With unbridled enthusiasm, she gives her pony a parting kiss for the day. Now that’s the very best kind of horseplay.