Bergen Russon’s client was having a rough day.
Then the horse being used in her therapy session brought its head to the client’s chest, and she hugged him. It was a small moment, but enough to completely change everything.
“He (the horse) knew what she needed in a way, and connected with her on a whole different level than I ever could have done,” said Russon, the recreation therapy program coordinator for Strides Pediatric Therapy in Eagle Mountain.
Strides Pediatric Therapy aims to make more of those connections that contribute to a child’s therapeutic progress. Located on 10 acres in Eagle Mountain, the organization opened last month, providing six therapy horses for equine therapy, along with miniature donkeys and goats in addition to traditional therapy services in an on-site, integrated clinic. Strides Pediatric Therapy offers occupational, physical, speech, mental health and recreational therapy, along with adaptive riding for those up to the age of 21 who have disabilities or other needs.
When children sit on a horse, the action promotes the normal gait-based muscle function as if the child was walking on two legs. Essentially, the horse does the work for the child, who receives the benefits. The equine therapy happens indoors, in a climate-controlled barn, with horses who were chosen based on their personalities.
If a child is running around, the horse will stay still. The children will then begin to match a horse’s calmness.
“There is a piece of it that we just can’t explain,” said Marley Juarez, the director of operations and an owner of Strides Pediatric Therapy. “There is a piece that is just so healing and therapeutic that just transcends logic.”
She said the unique form of therapy gives children a sense of accomplishment. They may be in a wheelchair and unable to try out for the same soccer team as their friends, but being able to navigate a horse through cones gives them a boost of confidence.
Many children start off by staring up at the horses and thinking that they won’t be able to do it. Russon said by the time they get off the horse, they think they can do anything.
“When we are working out there, we are learning riding skills,” Russon said. “We are learning to be a good riding partner.”
When one client was overwhelmed, the herd of miniature donkeys approached him individually, instead of as a group like they typically do.
“The ability for these animals to sense a situation, it is pretty amazing,” said Elizabeth Lebrecht, an owner.
The owners chose Eagle Mountain as a location due to it being centrally located for the Utah County, Salt Lake County and Tooele areas. It also gave them the ability to be surrounded by a large, nature-based space and provide enough land for the horses.
“We needed this open space and we didn’t want to have high rises next door and all this crazy, concentrated population to work around,” said Kacie Preysz, the director of clinic services and an owner. “It is a very therapeutic space for everyone.”
She said that not only includes the clients and their families, but also therapists, who can face burnout.
While equine therapy is big on the east coast, Preysz came to Utah and didn’t see a lot of it. Because it is more unusual in the west, the business has had to educate families on the benefits of the treatment.
“There is a big push right now for education on it, so parents are becoming more and more educated, doctors are starting to understand it and refer for it from a medical standpoint,” Preysz said.
She sees it eventually becoming as prominent as aquatic therapy.
Preysz said the children become invested in the horses, and in turn their therapy, bringing the animals snacks and presents. They see the horses as a pure entity that allow the clients to open up and relax. Preysz said one client referred to her time with a horse as “an hour of bliss in the darkness.”
The horses are ridden by an able-bodied, adult rider to maintain their balance and are given a strict schedule. They aren’t able to be used in more than three therapy sessions a day, and not more than two in a row. They also get time off and miniature vacations.
The organization relies heavily on a team of trained volunteers. Each therapy session that includes a horse has a leader who maintains control of the horse the entire time, a therapist and a side walker, making it so there is an adult on either side of the child at all times.
Strides Pediatric Therapy plans to develop the site further in the spring and eventually build a trail.