The Horse as Therapist

Part 3

By Ingrid Edisen

Excellence is the result of caring more than others think is wise, risking more than others think is safe, dreaming more than others think is practical, and expecting more than others think is possible.” –Stable Life Solution’s motto

“The mission of SIRE is to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities using horseback riding and related therapeutic activities.”

“With hippotherapy the horse controls the rider; with therapeutic riding, the rider controls the horse.” –as related by the program director of ROCK

Imagine for a moment that you have been trained to help people with either physical or mental “handicaps” and know of horses that need a job to do. Put that together with a healthy slew of volunteers and other therapists and you have a huge synergy of a win-win situation. Such is the case with three horse-related programs in the state: SIRE (Houston area), ROCK (Austin area) and Stable Life Solutions (San Antonio area).

SIRE stands for Self Improvement through Riding Education. ROCK denotes Ride on Center for Kids. Stable Life Solutions turns its attention to more of the psychotherapeutic end of the spectrum. SIRE and ROCK are not-for-profit (501(C)(3)) organizations. Stable Life Solutions is a for-profit organization and does offer a sliding scale payment plan.
“SIRE does not really focus mostly on the physically handicapped. We serve those with physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral disabilities, “ said Program Director Joelle Devlin. It has two locations, she explained.

One is in Hockley, northwest of Houston, and serves 120 riders per week with 16 horses; the other is in Spring, north of Houston, and serves 30-35 riders weekly with six horses. Both sites have covered arenas and both have earned the Premier Accreditation status from NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association).

“Of thirty-five practicing NARHA Master Instructors across the nation, we have two at SIRE,” Devlin noted. “We also have four Advanced Level Instructors and five Registered Level Instructors. Of the total thirteen certified instructors, five are licensed physical or occupational therapists.” SIRE’s program serves clients riders ranging in age from three to 73. “Sixty-eight percent of the client riders are under eighteen years of age,” she observed. “For some, independent riding will be their goal and for others, it may be sitting erect, or maintaining balance.”

“We focus on the ability, not the disability,” she said. “There are a wide range of abilities that would be worthy of a Gold Medal, such as many win in competitions such as Regional and State Special Olympics.” During the Regional Equestrian Special Olympics held this spring in Madisonville, SIRE took twenty-four riders and they brought home thirteen Gold Medals and several Silver Medals and Ribbons. SIRE staff and volunteers also took several riders to the State Equestrian Special Olympics held May 15th in Waco.

SIRE has three major fund-raising events annually and also depends on foundation grants, corporate and individual contributions, as do most of the other therapeutic riding centers. Devlin briefly read the “Wish List” for SIRE and items ranged from things as small as a can of Farrier’s Formula supplement for horses and adult Western tapadero stirrups to a much needed cover for another arena. Of course, there was everything else in between on the list, such as English and Western tack, office supplies, the need for a flatbed trailer; horse trailer, etc.

Meanwhile in the Central Texas area, ROCK has been quietly working on its $600,000 fundraising campaign. Currently the program uses approximately one hundred volunteers a week and serves 74 riders. ROCK is also a NARHA premiere center and has two physical therapists on staff. The six other instructors are NARHA-certified.

“Some riders don’t need side-walkers,” explained Joan Schroeder, the program director. “Some are very independent while others need three assistants.”

ROCK is located in Georgetown, directly north of Austin and has an outdoor arena with plans to build a cover as soon as it can be obtained. The Junior League of Austin, Southwestern University, and the University of Texas is where the group gets some of its support and volunteers. It has ten horses on regular staff and four on trail. Three miniature horses, also “on staff,” are used in educational programs for the Georgetown Independent School District that ROCK organizes. ROCK does a program for youth with the Williamson County Juvenile Justice System as well. One huge donation of twenty acres was given to ROCK last June.

If you were looking more for personal or relationship development, then Stable Life Solutions would fill the bill. Maryann Bell, a licensed professional therapist with a Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, linked up with Tina Gary, owner and head instructor of Azgard Farm who is an Equine Behavior Specialist. Both of them are EAGALA certified. EAGALA stands for Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. Stable Life Solutions offers experiental therapy for individuals, families, couples or groups.

“What we watch for is the interaction between the horse and the individual(s), and also the interactions among group members. Tina focuses more on how the horse is responding, and I look more at what is going on with the individual(s). All this feedback gives us clues as to what is really going on inside with their thoughts and emotions and also how they relate to other people,” she explained. Since both Bell and Gary are pretty much “on the same page” they do not need to take breaks during sessions but keep the sessions flowing as they do therapy in a private arena located on Gary’s Azgard Farms location. Some of their program goals are to change self-sabotaging behaviors and create healthier relationships. Stable Life Solutions offers private sessions and workshops on issues related to marriage, women, parenting and corporate team building. Currently, Bell is working on getting insurance boards to recognize and pay for this type of therapy if so warranted.

Bell noted that recently they worked with a mother and two kids who were having parenting issues. This type of therapy was more productive versus the kids doing “talk therapy,” she said, as the kids really get into the activity while engaging with the horse.

“Horses give immediate feedback,” Bell said. “It’s always the same—how the people interact in life is shown as they work with the horse. Horses are naturally very sensitive to emotions and body language, and by their responses. They give immediate feedback about what is really going on inside the person and how they behave in relationships with other people. The person can instantly see the outcomes of the choices they make by how the horse responds. We then help them relate the experiences they are having right now with the horse to other people and other issues in their lives,” she noted.

The two have a nickname for their program—”Extreme Life Makeovers” and have access to 35 head of horses and eight to ten interns/volunteers. Ninety percent of their therapy activities takes place “on the ground” and is not mounted. Its focus is on solutions for life issues and horse experience is not necessary. (Obviously, with ROCK and SIRE, horse experience is not necessary either for the clients.)

These organizations can be contacted as follows: Joelle Devlin of SIRE: (Be sure to put “for program director” in the subject line.); (281) 356-8946; Joan Schroeder of Ride On Center for Kids at:; (512) 930-7625; Maryann Bell of Stable Life Solutions at:; (210) 496-3716/ cell: (210) 386-8910. Or you may also type in their group’s name into your search engine as well.
Call these organization if you have a donation or would like to volunteer!

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