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Riding a horse is a treat, and treatment

Youngsters with disabilities can make impressive improvement in the saddle.

Horses and helpers are lined up ready for kids at Banbury Cross Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Michigan. Across the country, more than 42,000 people take part in therapeutic riding every year.
Horses and helpers are lined up ready for kids at Banbury Cross Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Michigan. Across the country, more than 42,000 people take part in therapeutic riding every year.Read moreERIC SEALS / Detroit Free Press

DETROIT - As a commercial mortgage lender, Jessica Moore went to work every day wearing suits and skirts, and sat in a cubicle, dreaming of something more.

Every day she made 20 to 25 cold calls, talking, she says, "to people who didn't really want to talk to me."

It was decent, dependable, predictable - 9 to 5, no weekends, solid benefits.

Then, about 21/2 years ago, Moore, 28, of Holly, Mich., quit to become a horse rehabilitation therapist. It combined her two loves: helping children and riding horses. Now, she is the program director at Banbury Cross Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Oxford, Mich. She works days, nights, weekends - wearing blue jeans and boots - sometimes 60 hours a week.

But she loves it.

Because she is working with kids. And with horses.

And she's making a difference. She can see children improve in amazing ways by spending time on horseback.

"I'm never going to be a millionaire doing it," Moore says. "But I'm always happy to be at work."

More than 42,000 people participate in therapeutic horseback riding every year at about 800 facilities accredited by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. They seek treatment for conditions that include autism, traumatic brain injuries, and cerebral palsy.

Proponents say the movement of the horse mimics the movement of the human body, stimulating different muscles and areas of the brain while creating an emotional connection between rider and horse.

Moore, who became a certified instructor in 2007, works each week with 90 people ranging in age from 3 to 70 and older, with various health conditions.

"We have everything from learning disabilities to autism to Down syndrome to traumatic brain injuries to stroke victims and multiple sclerosis," she says.

She has seen amazing success stories.

"I've had a small handful of riders say their first words on a horse, which is very neat," she says.

One, a 6-year-old autistic boy, said "Go" on horseback after six months of therapy. "He is still riding with me, and he talks like crazy now," Moore says.

That sort of progress with riding rehabilitation is not uncommon, says Barbara Yost, communications coordinator for the association.

"Very often, you will have people who have various learning or emotional challenges who, in partnership with a horse, seem to go farther in some of their relationships," Yost says.

Moore graduated from Western Michigan University's Lee Honors College with a bachelor's degree in psychology, emphasizing pediatric and geriatric psychology. When she couldn't find a job in her field, she went to work at the mortgage company.

But her lifelong passion for horses, which began at age 6 when her grandparents signed her up for a lesson, continued.

As a college student, Moore had volunteered at a nonprofit horseback riding program for children with cancer. She found the work rewarding, and later took classes to become a certified instructor. Seeing how many people are involved in therapeutic horseback riding, she saw an opportunity and left the corporate world.

On a Saturday afternoon earlier this month, Moore walked across the dirt and faced two children on horses at Banbury.

"Simon says, 'Touch your nose,' " Moore said playfully.

The two children touched their noses as they tried to balance on the horses. One is autistic; the other has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism.

"Simon says, 'Hug your horse,' " Moore said.

And the children tried, with varying levels of success.

"Animals have a good effect on children, a calming effect," says Dennis O'Meara, whose son, Derek, 5, has a mild form of autism.

Other children gain confidence on the horses.

"There is an expression that comes over the children's faces when they are allowed to trot. It is one of those priceless things," says Donna Sliter of Oxford. Her son, Austin, 12, who has Asperger syndrome, has been riding for a few months.

"I like the connection with Malabar, the horse," Austin says. "Having the largest horse is quite the responsibility, but it's quite the satisfaction."

At another session, Moore helped 13-year-old Jackie Moore onto a horse.

When Jackie started riding at Banbury five years ago, she used a wheelchair. She had suffered brain damage when she was 7 after going into cardiac arrest from an asthma attack.

"She was totally stiff when she started riding," says her father, Jeff Moore of Lake Orion, Mich. "We had to physically put her on the horse and hold her. . . . She couldn't use her hands."

Jackie has regained her strength and can walk. "The riding gives her a sense of flying," Jeff Moore says.

"Jackie's balance is wonderful now," says Jessica Moore, who is no relation, and who helps Jackie ride for about an hour every week.

Yost says riding a horse can exercise muscles that can be hard to stimulate.

"For some people who use a wheelchair, being astride a horse basically mimics a lot of the motion that you would have if you were walking on your legs. That exercises parts of the body that would be exercised if you were walking on your legs."

This allows people like Jackie to improve balance and strength, Yost says.

Jeff Moore tells other parents about the wonderful things that can happen - just from riding a horse.

And he praises the work of his daughter's therapist.

"Jessica has the patience of a saint, and she's strong as an ox," he says.

Go up to any parent at the Banbury facility and you'll hear nothing but praise for Jessica Moore.

"She makes us feel really comfortable. We depend on her," says Lavanya Sivakumar, whose son has autism.

"She knows each kid individually, how to work with them, because each kid has a different disability."

Another parent, Jennifer Burkhart, is an occupational therapist who has encouraged several of her clients to try therapeutic riding.

"It's been nothing but a blessing for Ethan," who has spina bifida, Burkhart says.

Moore is married, and she often is asked when she is going to start having children of her own. But, she says, "I feel like I have 65 kids at work. I see kids every day at work, and I love my kids."

Who Can Benefit

Individuals with the following conditions might benefit from therapeutic horseback riding, according to the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association:

Muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, visual impairments, Down syndrome, mental retardation, autism, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, emotional disabilities, brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, amputations, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder.