Children as young as three years old and adults as old as 80 are finding a breath of fresh air in a program that helps them grow emotionally, physically and mentally.
SIRE Therapeutic Horsemanship offers services that run the gamut to help those who have cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome or post-traumatic stress disorder, or have suffered from a stroke, traumatic brain injury or life-changing accident.
The program, by all accounts, has helped people learn to walk, communicate and simply improve their quality of life.
K Leonard has helped out with SIRE for more than 30 years. She got involved with the program while in college at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches.
“Some people get homesick; I got horsesick,” Leonard said.
She began volunteering with the program, which at the time was based in Nacogdoches. Now SIRE has riding centers in Hockley, Spring and Richmond. A fundraising trail ride is planned for Saturday, Oct. 21, at the 7IL Ranch in Cat Spring.
“When you consider that more than 12 percent of the population in Texas has some type of special need, a program like this is so valuable,” Leonard said. “When you see the healing power of our horses, that’s where the magic really happens.”
It’s been – literally – a life-saver for Gloria and Cody Hogue, whose daughter Alex Dumas rides weekly at a SIRE campus. The Hogues credit the program with giving Alex a renewed sense of purpose and something to look forward to each week.
Wendy Thomson, 55, had a stroke five years ago and turned to therapeutic horsemanship to regain physical and mental strength.
“I had a brain clot and was rushed to the hospital,” Thomson said. “I could only blink my eyes. I could not move anything else. There’s still a lot of weakness.”
As she got a little stronger, the mother of four – who uses a walker and wheelchair to aid in mobility – looked into the SIRE program and now rides once a week.
“I used to ride,” she said of the time before her stroke. “A lot of the muscle memory comes back. I got endurance and it helped me become stronger. It gave me confidence and core strength. When you feel the motion of the horse walking, it tells your body how to move and walk. It’s just so reassuring when you’re with an animal. For 90 percent of the people in a wheelchair, you’re constantly looking up at people, and your neck is killing you. When you’re on a horse, you get to be taller than everyone. It’s freedom.”
There are dozens of stories from SIRE participants about how they weren’t able to sit up straight or open a refrigerator door prior to the program, but the horsemanship provided enough core strength and cognitive skills to aid in physical abilities as well as communication with other humans.
“There’s an autistic person who has ridden with us for 20 years,” Leonard said. “A light bulb went off when he realized if you pull to the right, the horse would go right. That was the impetus in him being able to communicate with people.”
Others have shared stories about how riding helped them understand how to string together a sequence of commands such as the process of getting dressed in the morning.
“You put a rider on a horse, that movement stimulates nerves and muscles and develops balance,” Leonard explained. “It’s a very special process.”
Saturday’s fundraiser at the 7IL Ranch in Cat Spring will raise money for the program. Anyone can participate; the event includes a day of trail riding, a barbecue lunch, music and fellowship.
“It’s a very relaxed, leisurely and family-oriented event,” Leonard said.
The group is aiming to raise $100,000 this year, which will go toward scholarships and reduce the cost of lessons for riders at the Houston-area venues.
“To be able to give someone the gift of mobility or the gift of speech, to me that is a miracle,” Leonard said.
For more information, visit sirehouston.org.