Joy Ride

Joy ride

DMU physical therapy students expand their skills and impact on patients with equestrian-assisted therapy

On a rainy evening this spring, at a large equestrian center just north of Ames, IA, a volunteer leads two women on horseback in a game of ‘Simon Says.’ Meanwhile, DMU physical therapy student Josh Harry engages two rambunctious six-year-old boys in races between the horse stalls while they wait their turn to ride. Later, a group of adults refine their horsemanship skills in a “mint julep race” in celebration of the upcoming Kentucky Derby. 

This is no evening of horsing around, however. It’s serious physical therapy. And on six Tuesday evenings this spring, in a new academic elective, 20 DMU physical therapy students learned about these equestrian-assisted activities and therapies by serving as “walkers” alongside and behind riders, all individuals with disabilities. 

“I’ve always had an interest in horses, but I didn’t know you could use them in therapy,” says Justin Wilder, D.P.T.’21. “You can see how the patients react to riding. It’s helping me understand the mechanics of physical therapy and that it’s also emotional therapy.” 

At the center of the evening’s activity is Kris Lager, M.S., co-founder with her husband, Kelly, of One Heart Equestrian Therapy Inc. She is certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International as a therapeutic riding instructor, a Level 1 driving instructor and an equine specialist in mental health and learning. She grew up with horses, showed them in 4-H and studied animal science in college, but she was astonished when she first saw a quadriplegic man ride a horse during a therapy session in 2000. 

“Everything about him changed when he was riding on the horse,” she recalls. Inspired to make that therapy available to more adults and children with disabilities, she connected with other “horse people,” a local certified therapeutic riding instructor, physical therapists and other volunteers and, in 2002, One Heart was born. In its first 16 years, the organization roamed from local fairgrounds, stables, an outdoor arena and a farm, all of which required transport of the horses – which are donated and trained – and equipment. 

Tracy Porter and One Heart owner Kris Lager

Finally, thanks to many donors and significant community support, in 2018 One Heart found its current permanent home on 10 acres that feature a large indoor arena with a viewing area as well as outdoor riding spaces. Now, clients from nine Iowa counties, ages four to 80, come for classes designed to meet their needs. They include 38-year-old Lisa Mendell, who travels approximately 160 miles round trip from Pella, IA, to attend a Tuesday evening class. 

“I have cerebral palsy and have used a wheelchair since I was five. The [equine] therapy helps my balance and eases my spasms,” she says. “I love being around horses.” 

Classmate Kia Jordan, 24, also has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. She and her brother, Tyler, were One Heart’s first riders; this summer marked her 18th year of riding. 

“This therapy helps a lot. Kia’s muscles are unbelievably tight,” says her mother, Lisa Jordan. “Riding keeps her legs loosened up and helps her posture. Her physician can’t believe how strong her core is from having to sit up so straight on the horse.” 

Equine-assisted therapy offers benefits beyond the physical. Tom Jordan, Kia’s grandfather and president of the One Heart Board, says watching his granddaughter ride “still takes my breath away.” 

“A person in a wheelchair is always looking up at the whole world. Put them on a horse, and they’re looking down,” he says. “It changes everything.” 

For the riders, the activity “is something parents and grandparents can watch them do. They come and cheer,” adds Tracy Porter, M.S.P.T.’97, D.P.T., assistant director of clinical education for the physical therapy program and a longtime One Heart volunteer who oversaw the elective course. “The therapists at One Heart emphasize that the rider is in control, which is important for individuals who usually don’t have control over other aspects of their lives.” 

Lisa Mendell and her father, Perry

Like Lisa and Kia, 10-year-old Jayla, who has the neurological disorder Rett syndrome, is transferred to her horse as it stands beside a ramp. She uses buttons on her horse’s saddle to communicate whether she wants to halt or “walk on.” Tonight, her stout Norwegian Fjord horse, Gjoi, is whinnying spiritedly, but Jayla is firm: walk on. At one point, the students turn her around so that she sits backward in the saddle, pushing herself up with her arms on the horse’s rump. 

“Jayla was having trouble staying upright,” says Jill Harris, D.P.T.’20. “After we turned her around, you could just see her face brighten.” 

Soon it’s time for the two six-year-old boys, who are on the autism spectrum, to ride. Harry, who also suffers from anxiety, uses a portable stairstep to mount Nellie. 

“This program is amazing,” says his mother, Natalie Cruden, as she waves at the beaming boy. “The people here go above and beyond to make it a great experience.” 

The boys are given cards with instructions on each to engage them in social interaction with the DMU students. Last week, the students donned long ears so the boys could “herd cows.” 

“This was too good of an opportunity to pass up,” physical therapy student Justin Wilder says of the course. “I like how the sessions integrate games with therapy, so I’m learning how to make therapy more fun. I also like the fact the parents are here, so that we can talk with them and figure out how to try different things with the kids.” 

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