As Lillian Knutson came down the winding road and saw where she was, her mother saw her raise her head in anticipation.
Courtney Knutson’s seven-year-old daughter is unable to verbalize how excited she is every week she gets to ride a horse because of a neurological disorder called Rett syndrome with which she was born. But as she was situated on a pony named Jeni, her bright smile showed that she was ready to ride.
Bunker Park Stable at Bunker Hills Regional Park has always offered the opportunity for kids with physical disabilities and neurological disorders the chance to ride. However, the program has expanded tremendously since the Stable Pathways nonprofit organization was established four years ago, according to Kris Kelly, who opened Bunker Park Stable in 1995.
“We feel it’s important to give every person who want to ride a horse the chance to experience it,” Kelly said.
Knutson drives Lillian from their Brooklyn Park home to Bunker Hills Stable every week and her mother has noticed improvements.
According to Knutson, when Lillian started the therapeutic horse riding sessions at Stable Pathways three years ago, “she needed a pillow in front of her to stabilize herself while on the horse.”
“Through her therapy her core muscles have gotten stronger so she no longer relies on the pillow to sit taller on the horse,” Knutson said. “She is able to sit up straighter, has better posture, is overall stronger in the ability to support herself.”
Stable Pathways’ client list began with three in September 2009, but it now serves about 40 riders as young as two years old and as old as 74, according to Patti Franz, program director.
Group lessons are offered 24 weeks out of the year while private lessons are year-round. Hippotherapy, which is the Greek word for “therapy with the help of a horse,” is led by occupational therapist Kathy Simcox, who is in her first year at Stable Pathways.
Some lessons could involve just grooming a horse and leading it by the reins instead of riding it so the horse and human become more comfortable with each other, Franz said.
Simcox leads the hippotherapy sessions because it involves physical, occupational and speech therapy elements prescribed by a physician that must be delivered by a licensed occupational therapist.
The therapeutic riding sessions can be led by trained volunteers who work with a certified instructor. Franz has been professionally certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International since 2002 and she leads a core group of six volunteers, but between 20 to 25 people currently help out.
Franz’s only requirements of volunteers are “you have to be able to slug around the arena, have good stamina, common sense and be dependable.”
Franz and her then 14-year-old daughter Jenni were looking for volunteer opportunities in 1999 near their St. Louis Park home and found the We Can Ride therapeutic horseback riding program in Minnetonka. Jenni volunteered until she graduated high school and her mother continued to volunteer there.
“There’s so many things about therapeutic riding that are amazing,” Franz said. “For the clients, it’s not only the physical benefits which are many, but also the emotional benefits.”
We Can Ride’s facility was not well suited for students who wanted to be in equestrian competitions at Special Olympics, but Franz said Bunker Park Stable had the facilities they were looking for. This is how Franz met Kelly.
When Franz moved to the north metro area in 2009, she connected with Kelly, who wanted to form a nonprofit program so it had more credibility and ability to fundraise for operational expenses and program expansion.
Thanks to donations, Stable Pathways now has seven of its own horses that have their own personality.
Buck is a 23-year-old Appaloosa breed and Franz’s “go to” horse. He is going blind, but there is always more than one volunteer leading the horse and watching out for the student on trail rides.
Huey is a 13-year-old Haflinger breed and the first horse the program purchased in 2011. He works great with clients who want more input in the riding experience beyond the volunteers just leading the horse, Franz said.
Jeni is a new welcome addition because this pony is good at slowing down and stopping on command, which is helpful when the riders get tired, she said.
According to Knutson, there are some with Rett syndrome who cannot walk at all.
Lillian can walk independently with a walker, but her muscles can get tired. During her hippotherapy session, Jeni, while halted, shifted so Lillian was more balanced as Simcox and two other volunteers stretched Lillian out on her back.
Franz and Simcox said riding a horse stimulates the body and brain because the horse’s gait is similar to a human’s. The movements challenge balance, reflexes and sensory systems that cannot be matched in a clinical setting, they said.
“We’ve had riders who after therapeutic riding are able to ride a bike because their balance has improved,” Franz said.
Franz has heard of others able to swim because riding the horse stimulated their body in a way that helped them swim, she said.
Besides noticing Lillian being able to sit up straighter for longer periods of time, she has become more independent on giving commands. The instructors could tell Jeni to “walk on” at any point when she is standing still, but they first ask Lillian if she is ready and when she is, they patiently wait for her to place her left hand on Jeni’s back, which is her cue to continue walking.
Lillian is unable to talk because of the Rett syndrome, but she can make sounds and Knutson can tell her daughter is happy every time she is at her Stable Pathways lessons and that she has formed a bond with Jeni and Buck, on whom she first rode.
“The bond between she and the horse is apparent,” Knutson said. “Lilly pets the horse, uses sounds to show her excitement for riding and after each ride, she has the opportunity to go face to face with the horse where she leans in to show her affection. She’s all smiles during hippotherapy.”
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]