UIX: Kathy Ryan helps others learn, grow through equine therapy

Kathy Ryan is executive director of The Equest Center, the only year-round facility in the area that offers equine therapy for individuals with disabilities. UIX Project Editor Matthew Russell finds out how some special animals help individuals with special needs at this innovative riding center.
Kathy Ryan has personal reasons for loving her job. Her son, diagnosed with autism in 1996, made tremendous progress through his disability with the help of the galloping "instructors" at the Equest Center for Therapeutic Riding, where Ryan is currently executive director.
“He was 4 years old at the time. I brought him there to start riding and he absolutely loved it,” Ryan says. “It was kind of as therapeutic for me as it was for him. It started that way and I just never left.”
Ryan not only first discovered the Equest Center in 1996, she joined its ranks as a volunteer as well. Previous to that, she was a schoolteacher working on her master’s degree in learning disabled and emotionally impaired education.

Today, the Equest Center is the only year-round facility in the area, which is a critical piece for many individuals with disabilities. This helps to prevent regression and foster greater physical, mental, emotional and social improvement and benefits experienced due to a consistent riding therapy schedule throughout the year. It was established as a State of Michigan non-profit corporation in June 1990 and received its IRS 501(c)3 designation two months later. Then it took up just seven acres with a handful of horses and 16 riders.
“It has really expanded a great deal in every possible way since then,” Ryan says. “Now we have 34-plus acres, 32 horses, and we have about 180 kids ages 2 to 94 that ride every week throughout the course of the whole year, and have a waiting list on top of that.”

The Equest Center for Therapeutic Riding has offered year-round programming since it opened. The center serves special needs individuals from Allegan, Ingham, Ionia, Kalamazoo, Kent, Mecosta, Montcalm, and Ottawa counties. 

Equest maintains a staff of 13, with two full-time workers and 11 part-time--a physical therapist, music therapist, eight Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International certified instructors, a certified elementary ed teacher K-8, a certified secondary ed teacher, and Ryan--as well as a substantial pool of volunteers, who logged 46,800 hours in 2013. 
“We usually have four kids riding in the arena at a time. Each of those kids may take anywhere from one to four volunteers per child per half hour. That could be sixteen volunteers per one half hour session needed,” Ryan says. “We are blessed with some wonderful ones but we always need more. As far as our volunteers and staff go, we just have incredible people that work there.”

Programming at the center is thorough and diverse. There are different groups out and classes every day as well as classes every night for people brought in by parents or caregivers. The activities offered include the Therapeutic Riding Program; Horsemanship Day Camp; Horses for Heroes (for U.S. Veterans); Senior Saturdays - Connecting with the Elderly; Vocational (job skills training); Horses as Healers (partnership with Gilda’s Club); Music Therapy on Horseback; Equine Facilitated Learning; Sensory Riding Trail; and more.
The horses are outfitted with a saddle pad and a surcingle, which looks like a belt around the front of the horse with two handles. This system allows the rider to feel more of the warmth and movement of the horse, while allowing for varied riding positions. Sometimes the riders will be sideways, sometimes backwards, sometimes up on their knees, and sometimes even standing up.

“For kids that have arthritis, cerebral palsy or something like that, feeling the warmth of the horse and the movement of the horse helps to really stretch those muscles, build strength, build balance, and all those good things,” Ryan says. “The kids don’t realize that, though. It’s not a clinical setting they’re walking into. They don’t feel like they’re working.”
Ryan says it’s no coincidence that horses are such good therapy animals. The way a horse’s pelvic bone move during a walk directly mimics the way a human’s pelvic bone moves while walking.
“For kids that are just learning to walk, or relearning to walk, maybe because of a brain injury, stroke, or disability, being able to be on that horse and feel that movement helps to train the brain on how the body is supposed to move before the limbs are actually able to do so,” she says.
Mobility issues are addressed in some of the programs offered, but many clients are able to walk and ride just fine. Ryan’s son is an example of how sensory therapy can also be applied.
“Going to a grocery store was so overwhelming for him. He would shut down and go into his own little world or start screaming. It was just too much to handle,” she says. “Coming to the farm, there are a lot of good things that really helped him learn to process all that sensory information in a fun, safe, inviting environment.”
Bringing the rider to a point where they must concentrate on balance and being present in the body is helpful in introducing therapy for some clients. Children that are autistic, for example, cannot zone out while riding. They have to stay present, stay on the horse and keep moving.
“When you have that focus, you can move on to speech goals. We used to have our speech teacher come out to the barn and do speech therapy while he was on a horse. Following directions, sequencing, and all those kinds of good things can be taught like this,” Ryan says “There are tons of examples of kids and different things that they come in for. The possibilities of the horses are really so many. No matter the age of the horse, bonding with them is such a confidence booster. It’s a powerful thing.”
At Equest, equine therapy can take on many different forms. Music therapy on horseback, for example, is one of Ryan’s favorites to talk about—a licensed music therapist, a nun, plays guitar and rides a horse in the arena with clients.
“Some of the kids cannot process speech, and speech and music are processed in two different parts of the brain. They may not understand something when you say it to them, but when you sing it to them they do,” Ryan says.
Funding for the program is garnered through grant writing, donations, fundraisers, and a $20 surcharge for every class but, Ryan says, the center does quite a lot to make sure nothing is cost prohibitive to those seeking help.
“Twenty dollars is about a third of what it actually costs us,” Ryan says. “All the riders are getting a discount, but we also have a really firm policy to never turn anyone away due to an inability to pay. There are a number of kids that can’t really afford that $20 and so we have found people in the community that are willing to help support them, sponsor them, and keep the kids riding.”
Equest will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in April 2015. While the love of animals and children has been a common thread between staff and volunteers at Equest, working in some of the most beautiful country West Michigan has to offer with openhearted individuals doesn’t hurt either.
“It’s a beautiful area, peaceful and serene. Not a lot of people drive through it all the time,” Ryan says. “When you have a volunteer staff, the people come in because they love kids and because they love the animals, and it says so much about their hearts and what means the most to them. And the animals are so accepting of everybody. They don’t care you can or cannot walk, if you can or cannot talk. They see inside you, to your soul, and they don’t judge.”
For more information about the Equest Center for Therapeutic Riding, visit http://equestcenter.org/.

Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected] 

Photography by Steph Harding 
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