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WNY children and adults find healing at Equistar Therapeutic Riding Center


By Joyce Kryszak


Newfane, NY –
Getting up on the back of a powerful, one thousand pound horse might be an intimidating prospect for some people. But for some local people with physical and emotional disabilities taking the reins is great therapy. WBFO's Joyce Kryszak visited the Equistar Ranch Therapeutic Riding Center in Newfane. There, the horses are helping children and adults heal.

Click the audio player above to hear Joyce Kryszak's full story now or use your podcasting software to download it to your computer or iPod.

Living next door to the Equistar Ranch re-ignited a boyhood dream for John Miller. The retired man said he was always horse crazy. So, several years ago he volunteered to help take care of the ranch's horses.

But Miller, who is now ranch manager, said it is not the horses that keeps him working at the ranch. He said it was Michael, a little boy with crippling cystic fibrosis. Miller said he has wathced the boy improve dramatically because of riding therapy.

Attached to the main barn is a cavernous indoor riding arena. This is where fun and therapy come together. A ramp leads to a platform where disabled riders can safely mount. Riders start off flanked on either side by volunteers called "side-walkers." Then, trained and certified instructors guide riders around the ring, putting them through the paces.

Equistar founder Mariam Smith knew how beneficial those movements could be for people with crippling disabilities. Before starting the center in 1995, she went back to college to learn exactly how. Smith said studies prove that after only 12 weeks of therapeutic riding, people with cerebral palsy show a roughly nine percent improvement in gross motor skills.

That is because the movement of the horse simulates walking movement many disabled people, particularly those in wheelchairs, have never known. Smith said balance and flexibility also improve.

But not only people with physical disabilities are getting better here.

Sarah McCloud has multiple emotional and mental disabilities, including bi-polar disorder and autism. The smiling girl rides over to us after finishing her lesson with Randy. Randy is her favorite horse. But Sarah said all 13 horses and the other animals here are her friends.

Her mom Rebecca DiGregorio said being around the animals has done more to help Sarah than any medicine.

And there are other success stories. Another three-year old autistic boy spoke his very first sentences during his riding lessons. Now, instructors say he is telling everybody full stories.

But ask anyone who works at the center and they will tell you it has been life-changing for them too.

The year-round center has about 100 volunteers who give lessons, handle the horses - or just muck stalls. Brittany Gale is still a teenager. But, thanks to her work here, Gale said she is already considering a career as a special education teacher.

According to Smith, volunteers such as Gale put in more than 3,000 hours of service a year at the center helping out. And they are needed. From age three to 63, there are about 300 adults and children, 75 every week, who come for therapy - and for a little fun.