Brandon Holder’s team of volunteers helps him out of the wheelchair and positions him on Cappy, the horse he will ride today. It takes a wide Velcro strap and a back brace to hold Holder in place. The 19-year-old, who deals with arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder characterized by stiff joints and abnormally developed muscles, has a smile the size of Texas on his face.
Holder, who loves all things horse-related, comes to Carson Park every week from Benton to ride with H.O.R.S.E.S. The non-profit group “Helps Others Reach Success using Equine Services.” Joy and Bill Winebarger launched this therapeutic riding program in 2005.
Joy said she did not think she could run a therapeutic riding program and was not planning to start one, but “God had other plans.”
“We loved horses and wanted to do something with them – maybe open a tack store,” she said. “People mentioned therapeutic riding to us, but I did not think I was equipped to do it. Then, one day I saw a television program about it. Then, I read an article. Repeatedly, people kept bringing it up. Finally, I said, ‘OK, God, if this is what you want me to do, then make it happen.’”
Joy attended a national certification program that trained her to be an instructor for therapeutic riding and they applied for, and were quickly and easily granted, a 501-C3 certificate. Things fell smoothly into place. They began with two horses, two riders and one volunteer.
From the beginning, Joy said she could see special things happening. The horses they use – they have five now – all have a sense of how to adapt to their riders. One of their horses even senses when someone is having a seizure and will stop walking until it’s cared for.
“I think animals have different personalities just like we do,” she said. “Some are more in tune with pain or anger, with emotions. We’ve had some riders who are bipolar and have anger issues. Well, they quickly learn to let their anger go when they ride, or the horse will not cooperate.”
Other issues that don’t seem to be as obvious, like incontinence, have been inexplicably “cured” with riding. One mother, when applying for the program, said she just wanted to see her daughter with cerebral palsy run like other children. After one ride, the little girl ran a few steps to her mother, who had tears streaming down her face. By the end of several weeks in the program, she was able to run up a wheelchair ramp.
“Physically there’s a huge difference after someone goes through the program,” Joy said. “Their core strengthens, it helps them with breathing, and their flexibility gets better. Plus, they gain confidence and a sense of independence.”
David Mullins, 35, of Eddyville has cerebral palsy. He has been riding for a couple of years and has kept with it despite sometimes being scared. He said his muscles are a lot looser, he feels better and gets an emotional boost out of riding.
His father, Ron Mullins, said: “He rode at a horse park in Lexington, but this program is even better. You get more physical benefits and they do more with hand-eye coordination. You just get a lot more personal attention.”
Joy, who is a lab technician at Baptist Hospital, and Bill, who is a full-time student, agree that the volunteers who work with them benefit from the program, too. They’ve seen teens with behavior issues, who come to them to do court-ordered community service, completely change after working with H.O.R.S.E.S.
“I’ve seen teenagers come here belligerent, angry and totally self-absorbed,” she said. “First they might make a connection with the horses, and then they’ll begin to connect with the riders. Suddenly, they’re not just thinking about themselves. They expand their worlds out into other people.”
She said it makes a difference on a personal level, too.
“I can be having a bad day and then I’ll be with someone riding in the program. These riders come with disabilities they face every day, but they come with a smile on their face. We get them out of their wheelchair onto the back of a horse where they’re looking at people from a different angle. They have some control and they gain confidence. I think, ‘If they can do this with a smile, then maybe my day’s not so bad.’”