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Therapeutic-riding class helps riders overcome obstacles
"I can't believe she's paying attention," Amy Causey says, smiling as she watches her daughter, Alyssa, do exercises while balancing atop Lady.
"We heard about (Stir-N-Up Hope) years ago and have been on the waiting list for three years," Amy continued, her smile getting brighter, saying her daughter wasn't afraid the first time she got on the horse. "She's fearless." The lessons, the Newburgh woman said, help first-year student Alyssa better focus on tasks and obey rules.
Kelly Epperson, instructor and one of several founders, said she was first approached about starting a therapeutic riding program by a friend who had read up on the method and thought it would help her daughter.
"I had no clue about it and then one day I read an article about the program," Epperson said. When she got to the end, she added, there was a number for more information. She learned she could get certified through the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association by taking a four-day course.
After much deliberation, Epperson, then a special-needs assistant, got trained and in 2003 she, along with her husband, Tommy, Mike Epperson, Scott and Peggy Coomer, Jacquelyn Wilson and Andrea Hayse, opened Stir-N-Up Hope.
Since then "the Lord has provided every step of the way," Kelly Epperson said, adding that the organization provides the service free and relies on grants and donations of money, food and time to keep it running.
"It has been wonderful to see how the Lord has provided funds, people and answered prayers during my time with the organization," said Mary Sampson, Stir-N-Up Hope president. Sampson, who joined the organization after her son graduated high school in 2005, was the answer to one of those prayers, according to Epperson.
She said she talked to Sampson for several days regarding Stir-N-Up Hope's Web site and learned she has a degree in agriculture with equine science specialization. At first hesitant, said Epperson, Sampson called her up soon after and told her she'd help.
After grooming and getting acquainted with the horses, Epperson had the students in her 4 p.m. Tuesday session working on balance. At one point, to get Alexa Oser to sit up straighter, she put a paper under her and said "I want to see that paper when you come around," making Oser sit back to keep the paper secure.
Oser's mother, Alison Treat, said her daughter has autism and sometimes has trouble interpreting commands so having to remember how to get the horse to follow has been good for her. "It's also very good for her social skills," she added.
Walker Christina Greene kept tight reigns on Madison Melton's horse Noodles as he tried to go into faster trots. "I like just riding the horses," said Madison, who is confined to a wheelchair. Her mother, Stephanie Melton, said she's curious to see how the therapy may slow down her daughter's scoliosis. "I'm hoping it will keep it at bay at least." Not only has it helped her physically though, she continued, it's also helped Madison's confidence.
In the next class, Epperson focused on not only balance but also sensations like touch to encourage grasping and focusing on objects. For instance, if a rider has problems with focusing to the left or right, she will move to their weak side to get them to work on it.
During the lesson, Epperson used a red cone to entice Bayleigh Hawkins, who has rett syndrome, to focus on her.
Rett is a neurodevelopment disorder characterized by normal early development followed by loss of purposeful use of the hands, distinctive hand movements, slowed brain and head growth, seizures and mental retardation, according to www. ninds.nih.gov.
Her mom, Leigh Hawkins, said since starting about four years ago, the therapy has helped slow down Bayleigh's scoliosis and it is something "more than just sitting in the chair."
For Dexter James, who is in a wheelchair and doesn't speak, riding has meant better posture, a stronger trunk and better head control according to parents Rick and Jenifer James.
Epperson said when he first started, he basically laid on the horse but now, with help from a harness saddle, he can sit up. For him, the stimulation from the horses movements moves his legs and hips and works those muscles, she added.
Rick said they researched several different therapies for Dexter and after hearing about therapeutic riding, they tried it. "He sits up even straighter," Jenifer said, Rick adding they've also noticed he eats, drinks and sleeps better.
The downside however, is that Stir-N-Up Hope only has a three-month riding season, so the James' go to other places in the off-season. It's not the same, however, and takes time for them to get used to the new horses, facilities and staff. "An indoor arena would be really nice," he said.
"We hope to eventually build the program to the point that we can afford to purchase our own property and build our own facility that will be able to be NARHA certified," Sampson said. "Once we have our own facility with an indoor arena, we could offer programs year-round and would be able to incorporate other activities that are just not possible at our current location."
For more information about Stir-N-Up Hope or to donate, call (812) 649-8963, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or mail Stir-N-Up Hope Inc., 3131 N. Orchard Road, Rockport, IN 47635.