by Morgan Stashick / Appen Newspapers
January 06, 2009 Editor's note: Morgan Stashick is a junior journalism student at Auburn University who wrote about her hometown, Milton, for news outlets in Alabama. This is reprint of her article. The names of the children and parents discussed in the article were not given.
MILTON - On a quiet, single-lane gravel road settled with horse farms plays the music of muted neighs and the crumple of fallen leaves under heavy hooves.
Pastoral Wood Road is the site of Ride-A-Wish Incorporated, a program of innovative therapeutic horseback riding for children with special needs established in 2002 by Leigh Aiken, a certified therapist with the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association and with American Sign Language.
Aiken said after receiving her masters in therapy, she'd had her fill of sterilized environments and chose to branch out to something much more natural.
"I used to work in the hospital. You can't work under fluorescent lights all your life, that's no way to live," said Aiken.
Therapeutic horseback riding, or hippotherapy, is commonly offered to the disabled because riding is good for cognitive skills, core muscles, concentration and stamina. Physically, a horse's natural gait helps strengthen a person's spine and pelvic muscles, improves coordination and posture and increases joint mobility.
Perhaps most importantly for children, the diverse activities offered in the riding ring teach a cause-and-effect relationship while bringing fun and games into each lesson. Students at Ride-a-Wish also gain social and conversational skills.
"Walk on! Yee haw!" shouted one of the program's participants, a small 10-year-old named Amy.At her gentle yet eager command, her horse, named Star, continues its walk around the outdoor horse ring with Aiken at Amy's side."The kids have to 'yee haw' when they go around a barrel in the ring because it makes them more outspoken. Now Amy does a continuous 'yee-haw,'" explains Aiken.
However, Amy wasn't always this chatty. When she first began lessons at Ride-A-Wish six years ago at the age of 4, she hardly talked at all.
Amy's mother said the child has symptoms of C.H.A.R.G.E Syndrome, an acronym for a cluster of features found at birth (see sidebar). Amy's disability most served by equine therapy is hypertonia, a muscle condition that contributes to increased muscle tension, poor muscle tone and reduced ability to stretch muscles."Woah!" shouted Amy.
Again, Star obeys her tiny commander and comes to a halt. Amy decides that it's time to do her posting exercise, which consists of lifting her bottom up and down off the horse as she walks around the ring."I'm going to do a hundred," she announced.
And she does.Amy continues to walk around the ring on Star, blissfully unaware the friend who is carrying her is helping her body in several ways."Posting is good for strengthening the core muscles and thighs, and really helps with balance and stamina," explains Amy's mother.
But there are a lot of children, each with his or her issues. For that, Aiken makes her programs unique, offering a variety of activities depending on the rider's specific needs."Walk on!" shouted Zack, a 6-year-old atop a golden gelding named Hugo. Zack is talkative and full of energy, like most boys his age ‑ except he didn't start talking until he was four. Eighteen months later Zack began forming full sentences.On this particular day, Aiken takes her time preparing the horse when Zack and his mom arrive at Ride-a-Wish, talking to both while setting up and strapping on a saddle.This teaches patience.When Zack finally gets to climb onto the horse's back, Aiken announces that today's lesson is going to be a "whisper lesson," where all voices are hushed unless instructing the horse. This encourages voice control."We've gone to therapists since Zack was 18 months old. We stopped going to the others because Leigh brings everything we need into a lesson," said Zack's mom.
Glowing parental praise aside, Aiken said what motivates her most is simply knowing the children."I never want to be big. I want to be with people where I know all about their lives and can help make them better," said Aiken. "These lessons today, this is why I'm blessed. God's been good to me."