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Florida centre offers horse therapy for many health challenges

Horses and Human Health Horse Therapy

City suddenly becomes country upon stepping out of a vehicle at Naples Equestrian Challenge. The traffic whizzing past on Goodlette-Frank Road sounds more distant than it really is after driving down the shaded country lane leading up to the big red horse barn and riding arena. Oaks and pines add to the calming atmosphere of this place of healing with its herd of 10 of the most unusual therapists around, with names such as Sundance and Spirit.

NEC offers programs in therapeutic riding, equine-facilitated learning, equine-facilitated psychotherapy and summer inclusion camps, in which children both with and without disabilities participate in camp together. The various programs provide therapy to help people with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism spectrum, traumatic brain injury, developmental delay and multiple sclerosis. Additionally, stroke survivors and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder receive treatment at the facility. Participants range in age from 2 to 87 with 60 percent being children age 21 and under, said NEC executive director Kim Minarich.

Holly Shapiro's said her son Nathan, now 7, was diagnosed with severe autism as a 2-year old, and he has been participating in therapeutic riding for five years. Shapiro began volunteering at the facility because of the benefit her son derived from the therapy.

"It gives me time to connect with my son," she said. "They have a hard time connecting with people, but he's so engaged with the horses he looks in my eyes here."

The facility is certified as a premier therapeutic riding center by the organization PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International). The organization started in 1995 with two borrowed horses and four volunteers serving four riders. Minarich said NEC served about 500 participants in 2013 with the help of over 350 volunteers. She added that riders needing therapy often are referred by doctors and physical or occupational therapists, and the facility has people on a waiting list because it is running at maximum capacity. NEC presently operates on a 5-acre campus but last year purchased two adjoining acres and soon will be holding a "barn-raising" capital campaign.

Therapeutic riding helps people with disabilities develop strength in the postural core muscles and improve balance and coordination. The movement of the horse approximates the movement of human walking. The rocking motion transmits through the rider's body, providing kinesthetic, sensory and neurological input. Coordination exercises often are incorporated. Equine-facilitated learning and equine-facilitated psychotherapy may involve riding but also include activities such as handling and grooming the horse.

"People think it's just a pony ride," said Minarich, "but everything we do here has therapy involved. Grooming is tactile stimulation, and taking the girth up [on a saddle] requires coordination."

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