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Horse riding therapy is different kind of lesson for these students

AVON PARK - "Kick in with both your legs," Heartland Horses and Handicapped stable manager Joy Ongley instructed the horse-mounted kids. They did, and off their ponies went, one by one, down an empty field by the Avon Park non-profit group's stables. "Now, sit nice and tall and look between the horse's ears for me," Ongley continued, as helpers led the trotting animals. Some of kids beamed as they got more comfortable and saw how their horses reacted to their body commands. The Tuesday horse riding therapy session was for 17 special needs students from Sun 'n Lake and Park elementary schools as part of a year-round program the Highlands County School District started last year with Heartland Horses.
One Tuesday of the month is set aside for the elementary school students, who are bused from their schools. Another Tuesday is for Avon Park middle and high schools, said the school district's adaptive P.E. coach John Hunter, who is better known as "Coach Buddy." The therapy has a "calming effect" on the kids, who are from the "varying exceptionality group," or students with the more severe disabilities, from cerebral palsy to loss of hearing. "It's good for them," he said. The students don't just take a casual pony ride when they are down there. "They teach them how to ride a horse," Hunter added. As part of the therapy, the students learn how to control the horse, Ongley said, like gently kicking on its haunches, a sign for the horse that it's time to take off. They also learn how to balance, do tight turns and sit straight. The riding field has alphabet signs and mail boxes placed at various intervals. One exercise involves learning how to stop the horse at an alphabet sign and moving on to the next one after thinking of a word that starts with the alphabet. Kids also learn to stop at the mail boxes, open them and take a plastic ring out of them. "They learn about balance, responsibility. It improves posture and social skills, as well, and teaches them to follow directions, which helps them in school," Ongley added. The therapy Heartland Horses offers for kids and adults with disabilities is free. Any adult or child with a diagnosed mental, physical, or developmental disability is welcome. A doctor's authorization is required to participate. The horse therapy sessions for the disabled are offered from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday, Wednesday Thursday and Saturday. Ongley said she would love to expand the program if funding allows them. "We want to continue to grow but that depends on funding," she said. The group holds fundraisers throughout the year and takes not just monetary donations but also in-kind items like saddles and is always looking for volunteers. They also have birthday parties and offer riding lessons. Horseback rides are Monday nights from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. for children ages 3 and over. A $5 donation is requested. To Hunter, the riding sessions are a great benefit for the students who participate. It opens new avenues for them and gives them a real-life taste of something they may just read about in books. It also opens up new possibilities for them. Children with disabilities are often misunderstood, he said. When people ask, "What's wrong with them?" Hunter would rather disagree. "To me it's about possibilities and what's right with them," he smiled. pagarwal@highlandstoday.com (863) 386-5831