Weslie Jones appears disconnected from the world happening around her. The Great Bend High School student lives her young life with severe autism and she suffers from seizures, which are caused by her disorder. It’s a vicious cycle for the 17-year-old because with increased seizure activity, which she has suffered through recently, Weslie becomes even more withdrawn.
“After her cluster seizures she doesn’t notice us, she doesn’t speak to us, she sits and does her thing,” explained Weslie’s mother, Anna.
Hope is not lost, however. Anna has found a unique way to pull her daughter from her depths of withdrawal. Weslie has participated in horse therapy at Rosewood Ranch for the past four years, and Anna readily provides testimony about the positive results of therapy for Weslie.
“As soon as we head out to ride horses, she knows exactly where we are going,” said Anna. “She comes out of the funk and it changes her whole disposition.”
At the start of the fall riding session on a hot Friday afternoon, Weslie’s focus on horse riding was evident. “Ride the Horsey – My Turn,” Weslie clearly stated as she was helped from the small sedan by her grandmother, who pulled up outside of the Ranch’s riding arena. Within minutes of arriving, Weslie located her riding helmet, helped place it on her head and eagerly stepped onto the riding platform to climb on board her favorite therapeutic horse, Clyde. She then spent the next half-hour being led around a trail pattern in the riding arena and engaged in completing the various obstacle stations along the course.
Rosewood Ranch, located five miles north of Pawnee Rock, conducts equine therapy training throughout the work week to approximately 90 adults and children with developmental disabilities. During each six-week cycle, in the fall, spring and summer, Fridays at the Ranch are reserved for children receiving therapeutic riding services. Typically, it’s a full day for the horse instructors and staff with a dozen or more children participating in half-hour riding sessions throughout the day.
“Our children’s program has seen continual growth over the past eight years,” said Rosewood Ranch manager Eric Hammond, who is a certified instructor through Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. “This is effective therapy and there is no denying the benefits for the riders where small victories often mean big accomplishments. Our children’s program has grown because of word-of-mouth from parents and guardians who have witnessed success for their children.”
In the first six years of the program’s existence, Rosewood offered riding sessions to the children free of charge. Because of increased program costs, however, it began charging a modest $25 fee per riding session a few years ago. A grant provided by the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals at Via Christi Health has picked up the cost of the riding sessions for the children the last few years.
“We’re really grateful to Children’s Miracle Network for stepping up to help with the funding of this program,” said Hammond. “It has always been our desire to offer this service to the children without families incurring much, if any, cost. They have enough other financial burdens to bear.”
Brenda Grabast knows all about those financial burdens for her family. Her search for stem-cell treatment for her son, Derek, led them to Beijing, China, two years ago. Derek was diagnosed with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy at the age of 2, and soon after, received a diagnosis of moderate non-verbal autism. Prior to the stem-cell treatment, he also suffered from grand mal seizures.
Brenda credits horse therapy for the continued improvement of her son, now 11, since his return from China.
“Horse therapy has helped him tremendously with his trunk control,” she explained. “It’s gotten better after stem cell treatment, but horse therapy has helped to make him stronger.”
Never an animal lover, it took Derek a couple of riding sessions to fully participate in horse therapy.
“Derek had a death grip on my neck the first time he met the horse,” recalled Brenda. “He didn’t want anything to do with horses.”
That was four years ago. Since then, he’s formed a special bond with Ozzy, one of a dozen therapy horses at the ranch. Throughout a typical week, he will often place his index fingers above his head, giving the sign for “horsey,” in anticipation of his Friday riding session.
“If he had his way, he’d be at the Ranch every day riding Ozzy,” said Brenda. “If he is having a bad day at school, he’ll sign to Michelle (his longtime aide at St. John Elementary School), ‘Please, bye bye, horsey.’ If sissy is picking on him at home, he’ll want to go ride the horse. It’s his escape. He feels more independent on the horse.”
That sense of independence for Derek is part of the natural progression of horse therapy that the instructors are working toward, explained Hammond. Even after four years, Derek is still learning and growing with each therapy session, he added.
“He still gets in situations where he is off balance, but that’s where the therapy kicks in and he’s learned to overcome that situation,” said Hammond. “Each time he does, it’s a confidence-builder for him.”
Those independent victories have helped Derek to build trust in himself, his handlers and his horse. Building trust is something Derek doesn’t do easily, said Brenda. During a riding session nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see Derek lay completely back in the saddle and then raise himself back up. At times he even rides with his eyes closed, displaying the ultimate sense of trust and freedom.
“When we get up and walk across the yard, we take that action for granted,” explained Hammond. “But Derek doesn’t experience that same feeling of mobility. It’s the horse that gives him that sense of freedom that he would never have otherwise. You have to be in his position to completely appreciate that.”
While Derek’s therapy strides have been significant the past four years, his accomplishments do not surprise Hammond. He’s seen his share of therapy breakthroughs in 11 years of conducting the program at Rosewood Ranch.
“The unique thing about equine therapy is that you can take just about any problem and improve upon it,” said Hammond. “People who won’t talk will talk when they are on a horse. People who won’t use both hands will use both hands when they are on the horse.
“You can challenge them to overcome their issues when they ride a horse without them even knowing it’s therapy. As long as that desire is there for them, and it most always is when they are riding a horse, they keep trying to reach the next goal and accomplishment.”