Healing on Horseback

Category: Service with a Smile, Winter 2015 153 0

Riders take the REINS through therapeutic horsemanship.

“our therapy room is a riding arena, and our tool is a horse.” —Debbie Shinner

With her horse gently guiding her around the ring, 4-year-old Deena bounces around on her saddle, laughing with delight like only a happy little girl can. But Deena is not like other little girls. Born with Down syndrome, her parents discovered REINS, a therapeutic horsemanship program in Fallbrook, when she was just 18 months old. “We heard about REINS when we were starting to work on Deena’s walking and talking,” says her mother, Elizabeth Stephens. “We were looking for ways to help integrate her physical and mental development, and when she came here, she started interacting, talking, and moving—she became a superstar! She found something she really loves to do.”

Horseback riding at REINS brought out confidence and showmanship in Deena.
Horseback riding at REINS brought out confidence and showmanship in Deena.

Deena is one shining example of showmanship among 200 other exceptional students in the REINS program. Short for Riding Emphasizing Individual Needs and Strengths, REINS was founded in 1984 to provide life-changing therapy for children and adults with a wide spectrum of disabilities, from autism and ADHD to cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and spinal cord injuries.

“The benefits of therapeutic riding are staggering,” says Debbie Shinner, executive director of REINS. “I’ve seen children walk that doctors said never would.”

Research has shown that horses’ smooth movement sends vibrations to the brain through the spinal cord. Riding stimulates the brain, strengthens the core, and helps increase muscle control in riders whose disabilities often cause weakened musculoskeletal systems and decreased motor skills. It also improves balance, coordination, breathing, and speaking; encourages independence; and boosts self-esteem.

“For children with autism, for example, getting on the horse brings their attention to center,” explains program director Shauna Jopes, who has worked at REINS for 20 years. She has seen some children start at age 2 and continue to grow through the program two decades later.

“We are physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy all in one,” Shinner adds. “Except that our therapy room is a riding arena, and our tool is a horse.”

REINS owns a 10-acre property housing 20 horses, all donated from private owners. Some, like Fooley, a 14-year-old former polo horse who lost her eye in a polo accident, have their own disabilities. But all, including 26-year-old Cassie, have life and work left in them, and working at REINS provides them with the benefit of a renewed sense of purpose.

“They’re older horses who still have a lot of self-worth,” Shinner says. “They are so in tune with their riders and so sensitive. They can certainly take good care of the children.”

For more info: 4461 S. Mission Road, Fallbrook 92028; 760.731.9168, reinsprogram.org


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