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Healing on Horseback | By Cindy Hawkins


ROCKFISH – Three-year-old D.J. Hester sits tall on a gray horse called Naborah, waving to his parents as he circles the arena. Out of the ring, D.J. battles cerebral palsy, a disorder that attacks movement and muscle coordination, but here, on McCoy Farm, D.J. claps, smiles, and with the help of instructors, stays in control of the gentle giant. There’s just something soothing about horses, the rhythmic gait that rocks riders back and forth, the texture of the silky coat and velvety muscle. So it’s a natural progression for horses to be used as therapy for people with a range of disabilities. Alternative therapies have always had their doubters, but seeing the positive results of hippotherapy, or equine therapy, can turn these naysayers into “neigh” sayers. According to the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, North Carolina currently has more than 34 therapeutic equine centers. Some centers focus on helping people with emotional or mental challenges, such as attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder or autism, while others focus on physical disabilities. Horses make a difference Here in our own backyard, sisters Elaine and Emily McCoy combine their love of horses and helping people to make life easier for children with physical disabilities. Emily, a certified riding instructor, and Elaine, a physical therapy assistant, spend their Saturdays on the nearly 40-acre McCoy Farm showing children (and parents) what a difference a horse can make. “Emily and I both have had horses all our lives,” says Elaine, “and to be able to share our love of horses with children who can benefit is so rewarding for us.” The therapeutic benefits of riding are acknowledged by many medical professions, including the American Physical Therapy Association and the American Occupational Therapy Association. Riding therapy is said to enhance strength, balance, and flexibility along with instilling discipline and providing companionship. The partnership between horse and rider also helps promote self-esteem, patience and confidence. “We give children the opportunity to interact with the animal, to get acquainted with the horse before riding takes place,” Elaine says. “First-time riding can be very tiring, so there is minimal riding on the first visit.” On subsequent visits, riding times may reach 20 to 25 minutes depending on the rider. ”Each rider is different; with some, we try to do different exercises atop the horse, while others just sit and enjoy the ride,” Elaine says. Therapy that’s fun As riders gain skill and confidence, they also see other benefits: improved head and trunk control and the ability to maintain a balanced, centered position. The McCoys say the mental and emotional benefits are enormous, too. Wanda and David Hester have seen all of this firsthand. For a little more than six months, they have been bringing D.J. for therapeutic riding. They first heard about equine therapy from D.J.'s occupational therapist. Then another family told them about the amazing strides their daughter was making since beginning the therapy. The 7-year old benefiting so much that the doctor told her parents, “Whatever you're doing, double it!” The Hesters had to see for themselves. Elaine remembers D.J.’s first visits. “He used to clutch the horse and hang on tightly, now he is smiling and riding – even clapping, clearly relaxed and comfortable,” she says. ”It is therapy, but he doesn't realize it is,” his mother Wanda explains. “He has no idea he’s working because he is having so much fun.” Safety first Safety is always foremost in the trainers’ minds. Each child is required to wear a helmet, and two trained sidewalkers and one person leading the horse accompany each rider during a session. And for children who have severe balance problems, Elaine rides along. But it’s not just about riding. The children get involved in grooming, feeding and preparing the horse. ”We give them the opportunity to assist with the grooming to get them to interact with the animal,” Elaine says. “Simply holding the brush in their non-dominant hand helps to stimulate muscles that they may be reluctant to use.” Emily and Elaine give a lot of credit to the young women who take riding lessons at the farm. Though they might be tired from their own lessons, caring for the horses and helping out on the farm, the teens enthusiastically jump right in and help the young children in therapy. The McCoy sisters exude the same enthusiasm. After putting in a full week at their other jobs, where do they get the energy to get up on Saturday and put in a full day of physical labor? ”Honestly, I think it’s truly because we love it, and it brings the most joy to our lives,” Elaine says. “We see what it brings to the children and their parents, and at the end of the day, we feel really good.” CV McCoy Farm is located at 5430 Pittman Grove Church Road in the Rockfish area of Raeford. For more information about the farm or the programs it offers, call 910.848.0900.