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Calvin Center uses riding as therapy

By Clay Wilson

After Cathe McKinnon graduated from college, she fulfilled a childhood dream and bought a horse.

The horse, Glory Bee, provided McKinnon with many years of faithful service. Several years ago, though, Glory Bee started serving others, too – physically and mentally challenged children and adults.

Glory Bee is one of 15 horses at the Calvin Center, a non-profit Presbyterian Church-owned campground and conference center in Clayton County. Like its 14 companions, Glory Bee helps with the center's therapeutic horseback riding program.

"I think the results are phenomenal," said McKinnon. "I see not only the faces of the children when they're able to – do something so successfully, but I also see the looks on the parents' faces," she said.

According to McKinnon, who is certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, therapeutic riding can benefit disabled people both physically and mentally.

Mentally, she said, "It enhances their self-esteem by allowing them to do something they never thought was possible for them, something they only thought possible for other people."

Physically, the motion of the horses and the muscle use it requires to stay on them is like physical therapy.

Currently, eight children regularly participate in the therapeutic riding sessions, which runs on Saturday mornings from September to May.

In addition to the therapeutic riding, last year the center also started providing hippotherapy – treatment provided by a certified physical, occupational or speech therapist incorporating a horse (Latin "hippo").

Six children participate in the Calvin Center's hippotherapy program. But recently Terri Dickinson, the pediatric physical therapist who works at the center, hired another therapist, and hopes to add four more children to the rolls.

Dickinson, a five-year physical therapist who just started exploring hippotherapy last year, said she has been impressed with the results.

"In just a short period of time, I have seen some really dramatic changes in children that I haven't seen before in all the time I've been working with them," she said.

Dickinson said that one reason horse therapy seems to work so well is that the children are motivated to do well in their regular therapy so they can ride the horses.

But according to Dorene Ward, another reason may be that the children don't think of riding the animals as therapy, but just as fun.

Ward's 6-year-old son Gavin, who has cerebral palsy, just had his second hippotherapy session on Wednesday. Ward said she had wanted Gavin to participate in the therapy for some time, but that he had been on a waiting list at the Calvin Center since the beginning of summer.

"He loves it. It's fun for him," Ward said. "For him it's more like a playtime, not recognizing that he's doing all these stretches and exercises while he's on the horse."

McKinnon said that the Calvin Center has plenty of horses to be able to serve more children. What the center needs more of, she said, are volunteers to assist with the classes.

The center has between 40 and 50 volunteers, but McKinnon said that each four-child session takes 15 volunteers.

"(It's a) very volunteer-intensive program," she said.

But according to Julie Souza, who has volunteered for the therapeutic riding program since it started, the time the volunteers give to the center is well worth it.

"It's an amazing program," she said. "Just to see the difference it makes in the lives of the children and then the expressions on their faces as they're on those horses. It's life changing."