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Where horses help others to heal

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Two-year-old Mia Steedley smiles as she sits astride a horse slowly walking around arena, guided by therapists and volunteers with Victory Therapy Center (Photo by Dawn Cobb).
Two-year-old Mia Steedley smiles as she sits astride a horse slowly walking around arena, guided by therapists and volunteers with Victory Therapy Center (Photo by Dawn Cobb).

Written by Dawn Cobb

Two-year-old Mia Steedley smiles with glee as she sits astride the horse slowly being walked around an arena at the Victory Therapy Center in Flower Mound.

Her mother, Ashley Turner, is tearful as she describes how her daughter’s treatment during the past year has helped develop more than motor skills.

“She’s growing more. She’s talking more,” Turner said. “It’s helping her more than I ever thought it would.”

The toddler, who was born with a cleft in her brain, is learning how to walk – the only disability she has suffered from the birth defect. The blonde, blue-eyed girl giggles as she is guided to do exercises in the saddle as part of strengthening her body’s core muscles – a key element in helping her to strengthen her legs as she begins to walk.

“They’re really great at what they do,” Turner said, adding that as she watches the foursome surround her daughter, she believes it takes a lot of patience and commitment to do what the center does for others.

“She didn’t like animals before,” her mother said. “She took to riding immediately.” And since then, the youngster has welcomed animals of all kinds.

Turner says she is thankful for the opportunity – an opportunity she would not have had if not for an anonymous endowment that sponsored her daughter’s therapy.

A History of Help

Mia is one of hundreds of people of all ages who stop by the Victory Therapy Center for their weekly sessions. A veterans group deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, families arrive for counseling sessions, young and old receive physical therapy.  The difference with this therapy lies with the horses.

Situated on about 27 acres in what used to be the Lena Pope Home, the Victory Therapy Center has created a welcoming place in the past one-and-a-half years since relocating to its current location on Dunham Road off U.S. 377 from Keller, where the center operated as the Rocky Top Therapy Center.

In nine separate pastures bearing such names as faith, patience, kindness and passion, horses slowly graze on the green grass – some retired and waiting for new homes, others patiently awaiting their next therapy session.

At a staff meeting one recent weekday, the core group of therapists, counselors and other staff discuss upcoming schedules as well as the ongoing need to find new therapy horses as well as forever homes for the retirees.

After 20 years in operation, Victory Therapy Center finds itself in a position of needing to find a fresh crop of the specialized horses to continue their mission of helping others find hope and independence.

Laura Hamrin, a therapeutic riding instructor with an extensive history with horses starting at age 3, will soon travel to a place that provides specially-trained horses as well as a place for them when they need to retire.

It is exactly what Hamrin and the other staff want to hear – that their therapy horses will have a good retirement home when the time comes.

Linda Engle, director of volunteer services, talks about the need for more volunteers, who are the lifeblood of Victory Therapy Center. Whether painting fences, installing landscaping, answering phones, assisting with equine care or volunteering their time to help with the training sessions, plenty of options are available for anyone or any group interested in helping others.

“We need a lot more volunteers,” she says, adding that as the center grows, so too the need for more help.  The center currently has 95 volunteers, she said. Anyone interested can contact the center through www.victorytherapy.org or call 682-831-1323.

Tracy Allen, now equine services administrator, started out as a volunteer. After years in the airline industry, she soon worked to get certification to start a new career.

“It’s the best thing I ever did,” Allen said.

‘Yeah, it’s Thursday!’

Jason Thorpe, 11, looks forward to his Thursday therapy sessions at Victory Therapy Center where he has worked the past two years to strengthen his core, enabling to walk without a walker. (Photo by Dawn Cobb)
Jason Thorpe, 11, looks forward to his Thursday therapy sessions at Victory Therapy Center where he has worked the past two years to strengthen his core, enabling to walk without a walker. (Photo by Dawn Cobb)

Jason Thorpe is ready for his ride, thankful that Thursday has rolled around again and he can sit astride Chantal for a 30-minute session.

“He looks forward to it every week,” says his mother, Heather Thorpe. “Ever since Jason started here, we’ve just seen a huge improvement.”

When he first started therapy with horses two years ago, the 11-year-old could barely sit up and had to use a walker to get around. Today, the youngster with a head of carrot-red hair stands upright and can walk around his home unassisted.

“His endurance is better,” his mother said, adding they learned of the therapy center from a chiropractor after Jason was beginning to get bored with traditional therapy.

Suzanne Sessums, a physical therapist and therapeutic riding instructor, has worked with both Mia and Jason as well as many others who come through Victory Therapy Center’s programs. A vibrant personality, she also does in-home therapy and works at a hospital as well as continues her education and raising two boys.

Working with Jason, Sessums said “in four months, he was walking without any assistance.”
Each person receives therapy according to their individual needs, she said. And, with horses, many quickly drop their hesitation against physical therapy because they find riding horses “fun,” she said.

“This is where they get to be normal,” Sessums says of the people who come to the center to work with horses. “They don’t get the normal extracurricular activities.”

Sessums works with each person to help them do stretches while atop the horses calmly striding around in circles. Sit-ups and other similar movement exercises are done while the person is in the saddle. The horse is surrounded by both trained therapists and volunteers – as many as needed to ensure everyone’s safety.

What many do not realize, she said, is that the pelvis of a horse moves the same way as a human. Sitting astride the horse as it moves can help condition the very same muscles used for pelvic movement in humans. “It’s almost retraining the muscles,” she said of the horse-centered therapy. “You can do anything with them on a horse.”

While riders work with therapists in the arena, Chris Covington is often nearby or in a counseling center at the back of the property working with individuals or with groups.
As director of counseling and education services, Covington said his job is not only to provide counseling but also to ensure the right matches for each volunteer, instructor, client and even horse.

Much like individuals, horses’ personalities can range from very calm and centered to being a little more dominant, willing to push boundaries. The key, he said, is to ensure the center has the right mix of horses to provide the therapy needed by each individual.

Jax Gibson, a therapeutic riding instructor, charms visitors and others with her British accent and her down-to-earth style of working with both individuals and horses. She firmly instructs a horse to step back on a metal plate where the horses being prepared for riding are kept to ensure safety at all times. When the horse obeys, she strokes their noses and pats their neck. “You’re a good boy,” she tells one.

Gibson said she heard of the center five years ago and, after one visit, was smitten with the idea of helping others through horses. She earned certifications, trading in a journalism background for riding therapy and works to help others.

It’s a Promise

As new riders show up and horses are brought from the field while others groomed and returned to the pasture, Promise meanders up to keep an eye on things.

As the resident dog owned by Lisa Harvey, director of equine therapy services, Promise knows not to enter the arena when riders are in training.

Instead, she steps up to Jason for a quick pet and a couple of dog treats Sessums brings up for Jason to feed to Promise.

Carefully, he proffers the bacon-scented treat as Promise carefully reaches up to take it gently from his fingers.

Jason laughs as Promise chews.

Yet another bond is in the making at Victory Therapy Center.

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