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Therapy Through Horsemanship

Equestrian program serves individuals with special needs

Darleen Principe, Moorpark Acorn 

When 14-year-old Miranda Berenstein goes horseback riding, she often rides without the stirrups.

The Thousand Oaks teen, who was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy and optic nerve hypoplasia when she was just a toddler, sometimes has trouble stretching out the stiff muscles in her legs.

But every Tuesday afternoon, Miranda receives a unique type of therapy.

For half-an-hour each week, she saddles up a 23-year-old horse named Dundee at Special Equestrian Riding Therapy (SERT) in Moorpark.

“The inside of (Miranda’s) legs are being massaged by the warmth and movement of the horse,” said Connie Gilly, program director at SERT. “I have many kids with (cerebral palsy) like Miranda, that when they first get on the horse, their legs will be drawn in tight. But at the end of the lesson, their legs will be hanging down straight, just because (riding) is like getting a good massage.”

Miranda is one of about 30 participants in weekly riding lessons at the Moorpark facility.

Other students in the program— some as young as 4 yearsold— suffer from a variety of conditions, including autism, Down syndrome, Williams syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“What we do here is therapeutic,” Gilly said. “First of all we want the kids to be safe. Then we want them to enjoy their time with the horse. The kids here are learning basic skills and motor skills, and they don’t even realize it.”

The riding instructors help the kids pick up the reins, direct the horse to turn right or left, or ask the horse to walk or “whoa!” Gilly said.

“(The kids) are not only doing a physical movement, but verbalizing what they want also,” she said. “It’s developing a lot of gross and fine motor skills, motor planning, balance and building core strength.”

Besides the physical benefits of horseback riding, the kids also get a boost of self-confidence.

“We put them up on a horse and for the first time, they’re viewing the world from a whole different place,” Gilly said. “And it’s wonderful to watch them because it’s like they’re making discoveries of things that we take for granted.”

Therapeutic horsemanship

This month, SERT is celebrating its 25th year of providing therapeutic horseback riding to children and adults with special needs.

The nonprofit organization was founded in Chatsworth in 1987, when a group of friends with children with special needs wanted to get involved with horseback riding, Gilly said.

“They saw it as an opportunity for their kids to learn and grow and to develop a unique skill,” she said.

Since then the organization has moved to various facilities throughout Los Angeles and Ventura counties, finally settling on a 24-acre ranch at the Classic Equestrian Center on Tierra Rejada Road in 2008.

Besides providing individualized lessons to children with special needs, SERT also hosts field trips for elementary school students and seniors in assisted living.

“We wanted to go into a community that was horse- and family-friendly, and that place is Moorpark,” Gilly said. “We’re not only here for the families with special needs. We’re here for all the families of Moorpark. We want everyone to come by and see what we’re doing.”

Reciprocal therapy

SERT owns six horses used for therapeutic riding lessons. Gilly said most of the horses that come into the program are donated after their owners can’t keep them anymore.

“Sometimes the horses can’t perform anymore, so they come to us with issues,” she said. “Some have arthritis, and some are rescued from mistreatment.”

Zippy, a 35-year-old pony, once belonged to a well-known riding academy.

“But she couldn’t do enough lessons to pay for her upkeep anymore, so she came to us,” Gilly said. “She’s lost her vision in her left eye and has arthritis. But we use her for ground lessons, like grooming.”

At SERT, therapy is just as much for the horses as it is for the students.

“We’re as committed to our horses as we are to our kids and adults who ride in the program,” Gilly said. “Once the horses come here, we do everything we can to take care of them.”

Making progress

Melissa Berenstein, Miranda’s mother, signed her daughter up for lessons at SERT about two years ago.

“We loved it from day one,” Berenstein said. “ The whole environment here is just so kind and welcoming, and friendly and caring.”

Since Miranda started the therapeutic riding program, she’s improved in physical balance and muscle strength. She is also more confident socially, her mother said.

“I am just very glad that we chose to come here,” Berenstein said. “I am just so touched. When I am out here watching my own kid ride, and just to see some of the other kids ride and make progress—it’s a beautiful thing.”

Gilly said the program has positive, long-term effects because kids are able to reuse and build upon skills.

“They maintain what they learn here because they use it over and over again,” Gilly said. “Some bits of progress are slow, but it’s still progress.”