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Horses help disabled children gain strength, confidence

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The transformation occurs even before the horses are brought out.

Shelby Wimmenauer can’t say more than about five phrases to communicate with others. A heart problem as a child left her in a coma for three years, and when she awoke, she had lost the ability to walk, see and talk.

But when she’s helped into the saddle at Meadowstone Therapeutic Riding Center south of Franklin, 16-year-old Shelby is a new person.

“She loves animals, and there was something instant where she connects with the horse. Anything is possible when she’s on the horse,” said Cheri Wimmenauer, her mother. “She relaxes; she’s calmer and has more strength and awareness of her body.”

Shelby is one of the success stories at Meadowstone, the only horse therapy center in Johnson County. The center uses horses and horseback riding to help develop physical and mental skills, and to offer a calming influence to those who need help.

Owners Bob and Julie Oliver have spent the past five years pairing children with one of four specially trained horses. They’ve seen kids develop the ability to speak, watched as they started to walk without assistance and fine-tune social skills.

“It doesn’t work for every child. But when it does work, it’s miraculous,” Julie Oliver said.

Perched on a spotted brown-

and-white horse named Tigger, Drew Bayliss sat up straight in the saddle and did his best cowboy impression.

His left hand gripped the saddle horn, while the other hand held the reins. With his protective helmet slightly cockeyed, the 6-year-old Franklin boy bounced up and down with each step.

“He took right to it. He’s done really well and likes to brush the horse. And he loves to go fast,” said Kristi Bayliss, his mother.

Drew is one of the new students at Meadowstone. His mother signed him up for the six-week summer session in June.

She learned about the riding center through a family friend. Kristi Bayliss thought it sounded like a productive way to deal with Drew’s autism.

“I had done a little research online about riding therapy and wanted to try it,” she said.

Therapeutic horseback riding is used in a variety of ways for people suffering from many different issues.

According to research by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, riding helps stimulate the body and brain. A horse’s gait re-creates a person’s natural movements, including walking. Riding also builds muscles in the trunk and legs of a person who uses a wheelchair.

“The gait of a horse moves your hips in the exact same pattern that walking does, and it actually can stimulate the nerves and tendons and muscles,” Julie Oliver said. “It builds balance, coordination, core strength in a way that it’s hard to do it any other way.”

In addition, it can simply serve as an opportunity for the disabled to be active in a way they normally couldn’t.

“This is their sport,” Julie Oliver said.

Bria Clawson, 7, has been diagnosed with a seizure disorder that causes her to move uncontrollably and prevents her from walking most of the time.

She started horse therapy when she was 2 years old and has developed more movement with her legs. Her seizures have also lessened, said Kelli Clawson, her mother.

“Bria sits up and has more core muscles than before. I feel like she can be having the worst day, but when she comes out here, it just mellows her,” she said.

The Olivers founded Meadowstone in 2009. Bob Oliver was a veterinarian and owner of the Franklin Animal Clinic until his retirement that year.

The couple have raised, shown and trained horses throughout their 44-year marriage, and they had built a large indoor riding barn on the Amity-area farm.

Their interest in therapeutic horseback riding was spurred after hearing the story of a child at their church who had gone through horse therapy on a farm on the northside of Indianapolis.

When they learned there was no such facility in Johnson County, the Olivers decided to open their own.

“We had the horses, we had the barn, now let’s go get some kids,” Julie Oliver said.

But opening a therapeutic riding center proved much more intensive than they expected. While the barn was suitable for therapy riding, the Olivers had to add on an office and build a parking lot.

Julie Oliver had to be certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, as well as be trained in running a center. She did student teaching at a farm in Cicero, passed two written tests and a riding test, and conducted a test lesson in front of evaluators.

Shelby has been riding at Meadowstone since it started.

She had been taking part in a horse therapy program in Zionsville before it opened. But living in Whiteland, it became too difficult to make the hour-long drive there and back, Cheri Wimmenauer said.

When they learned about a Johnson County program, they immediately signed up.

Shelby’s development since they started horse therapy has been impressive, Cheri Wimmenauer said. Though she can’t talk, Shelby has created a series of sounds so she can communicate. Horseback riding has only expanded that.

“She’s willing to try anything on the horse, even the things she’s refused to do on land. She sleeps better, and all around, there are multiple layers of what she’s had to offer us,” Cheri Wimmenauer said.

Each session puts the child in the saddle to ride on one of Meadowstone’s horses. Some of the animals, such as Magic, were raised by the Olivers. Others were rescued and brought to Meadowstone, such as Tigger, a recovering abused harness horse.

The children are flanked by two side-walkers, volunteers who stay by their side to make sure they remain safe in the saddle. A third volunteer leads the horse.

The lessons are themed, to give the kids something different to do each time they arrive at the barn. They play games, such as using squirt guns to knock off a ball or carrying a cup of water from one barrel to the next, all while balancing on the horse.

Instructors also implore the children to stretch their arms, follow directions and work with their volunteers — skills they otherwise might not build.

“If you do it another way, it’s work. But the kids consider this therapy fun,” Julie Oliver said.

Jackson Phillips, 9, suffers from cerebral palsy. When he started at Meadowstone, he could not run and could barely walk. But after doing horse therapy for five years, as well as other physical and occupational therapies, he can now take off in a gallop.

So when his horse starts going at an easy trot, Jackson beams.

“Because he couldn’t run, when the horse would run, it was all smiles. You probably wouldn’t get a smile any other time, but he starts smiling then,” Julie Oliver said.

Meadowstone just finished its six-week summer session and is accepting registration for the next round, which starts in September. The Olivers have just started a new program, pairing with patients at nearby Tara Treatment Center to provide a stabilizing psychotherapy sessions for people struggling with addiction.

The Olivers hope to help as many children and adults as possible, even though they recognize they have limited resources. Because of the number of horses they have, and the amount of volunteers needed to work with one child, sessions remain small.

But all of those involved have faith that they’ll connect with those who need their services most.

“We consider this a God thing. We feel that God made horses specifically for people. This is such a unique animal. And we also believe that God approached us to open this ministry, and we pray that he’ll bring us the students to help.”

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