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Riding Therapies Offered at Huntington Beach Equestrian Center

Eddie Brennan is all charged up. The 4-year-old, who is autistic, has already raced through a puddle, and he writhes as his nanny struggles to remove his shoes and socks.

But when Brennan climbs on the back of Kattie, a dark bay therapy horse, something magical happens.

The kinetic little boy melts into the horse, contented and somehow soothed. He sits or lies on its back — even rides backward. It’s as if he has a connection to the horse.

For 25 years, the nonprofit Therapeutic Riding Center at the Huntington Beach Central Park Equestrian Center has offered riding therapies to people with such special needs as autism and epilepsy.

For much of that time, Donna Brandt, president of the group and the lead instructor, has been at the center of the action. A longtime horsewoman, Brandt became involved after her daughter, Jamie, was diagnosed as severely developmentally delayed.

Like many parents with challenged children, Brandt tried numerous activities and therapies to find one that engaged her child.

“We tried them all. This is the one she liked best,” Brandt said. “She’ll sit around all day and wait to go riding. This is the one that stuck.”

Parents and caretakers are almost unanimous: There’s something about horses. The relationships and bonds that the children form with the animals can be transformative.

Katy Prill is all about drama, according to her father, David Gill. The 17-year-old, who has Down syndrome and who recently recovered from leukemia, often tries to make big productions out of small things, and she can act out.

But on this day, she hops right onto Wilma, a big bay, without any histrionics.

“Hey, Dad, look at me,” she calls out, waving.

“She’s almost unrecognizable,” Gill, 44, said of his daughter and the progress she has made since becoming involved with therapeutic riding.

On the horse, Prill is focused and confident, two things lacking since her move from Northern California to Huntington Beach four years ago.

“When she came down, this was one of her first activities,” Gill said. “She was very fearful.”

On a warm, dusty day at the equestrian center, parents talked about the self-confidence that riding gives the children. They say the experience improves well-being in multiple dimensions: cognitive, physical, emotional and social.

Brandt said people who use wheelchairs can build core strength by riding a horse. It also builds self-confidence. Brandt said that something as simple as a change in perspective — looking down from horseback rather than up from a chair — can feel empowering.

Also, the lessons are conducted outdoors and away from therapy rooms.

“This is one of the therapies [that disabled people] don’t give up on,” Brandt said. “There’s something about animals.”

Gill said that when his daughter plays softball or soccer, it is about the social experience. On a horse she is more purposeful.

“There’s a maturity that comes with it,” he said.

Karen Starky, 54, says the program has been a “savior” for her daughter, Angie, 28, who has epilepsy. Starky says that before her daughter was stricken, she was a fearless athlete and skier.

The disease took that away. Therapeutic riding is bringing her back.

“When she started, she could barely get on [the horse], she was so weak,” Starky said.

Danielle Stanback, 32, is a volunteer who also has epilepsy but is rebounding. She said riding is particularly important because it pulls people out of isolation.

At the center, most of the riders are accompanied by three volunteers: One leads the horse and two walk beside it to protect riders from toppling off. Classes last an hour, once a week. Riding is divided into 10-week semesters, with a price of $410 per semester. There are scholarships for those in need, and Brandt often offers special extras. This year, there was a Halloween horse parade, and she took 30 students to the 2015 Kiwanis Equestrian Competition for Special Athletes in Los Angeles.

Brandt said a film crew from South Korea was scheduled to visit to make a documentary.

The therapeutic capabilities of working with horses date to ancient Greece. In the 17th century, interaction with horses was prescribed for ailments including gout and low morale. It was not until the 1960s, however, that equine-assisted therapy was formalized.

Brandt said insurance programs don’t pay for riding as therapy, but she hopes that will change.

“It’s becoming more mainstream,” she said. “One of these days it will be accepted. I encourage everyone to file with their insurance. One of these days . . . .”

Karinna Barlow, 42, watches as her 9-year-old son, Leo, is led around the ring. He has a rare genetic defect, agenesis of the corpus callosum, that affects the white matter that connects the hemispheres of the brain.

“We were trying so many things that we were overwhelmed with therapies,” Barlow said. When Leo found horse riding, she described the connection as something akin to souls communing. “It’s so good to know there’s always a way for them to participate in the world,” she said.

“You realize it’s just in a different way.”

from Orange County Register