Let’s go Buddy.” Grayson urges Buddy the pony forward as he grips a green ring and holds it up in front of him.
“Pretend that you’re driving a car, Grayson,” his therapist Tara Yelliott says.
“Vroom, vroom,” he responds as Buddy moves forward.
Grayson, a perky 6 year old with an infectious smile, obviously loves both the horse and the therapist. As she walks Grayson on the pony around the ring at the Tristate Therapeutic Riding Center in McDonald Tennessee, Tara introduces us, “This is one of my favorite patients. He’s a phenomenal guy.”
Grayson has Alexander Disease, a rare, regressive brain disease affecting fewer than 100 people around the world. His days are filled with therapy appointments designed to help him live a normal life.
“What I’m working on with Grayson right now is core stability, balance, and coordination. We use the horse because the way its spine and pelvis align is similar to ours so their movement is much like a human walking. The patient gets that pelvic movement, their arms swing, their eyes focus on their task. It’s the perfect therapy for kids, because they don’t realize it is therapy. These kids spend their lives in doctor’s offices. But I think they learn best in an environment that is play-based and doesn’t look like a doctor’s office. That’s why therapy works so well here.”
Tara directs the Reinbow Rehabilitation Program as a physical therapist. “As a therapist and a horse person, this is the perfect job for me. I tell everyone that I have the best job in the world.”
Ashley Hartz, Program Director for the Tristate Therapeutic Riding Center, is thankful for people like Tara. “Finding a good therapist is hard. Finding horse people is hard. Finding a horse person who is also a good therapist is amazing!”
Tristate Therapeutic Riding Center serves over 200 individuals in Cleveland Tennessee and the surrounding area. In addition to therapy at the Center, the Center’s “Mini Manes and Tales” Program takes miniature horses and ponies to area schools to help young students who have dyslexia or other anxieties about reading. The children actually “read” to the horses.
“I have one horse who will turn pages. It’s the cutest thing! Or if you hold the book sideways, the horse will pull it right side up to see the pictures,” Ashley explains. “The horses also go to nursing homes as emotional therapy – just to bring people joy.”
The Center operates as a low cost to no cost facility, so no one needing therapy is ever turned away because of an inability to pay. For many of the participants, therapy at the riding center is the only therapy they can afford. “At our center, they not only get experience with the horses, they also get an actual therapist, just as they would in a clinical setting.”
Normally a riding lesson will cost $75, and a one-hour session with a therapist will run $50-$100. By offering low to no cost services, the center is meeting a critical need. The Center also uses equine therapy to address the needs of at-risk teens, and their Horses for Heroes Program allows veterans to access free care through group, individual and family sessions with a trauma counselor and equine therapists.
The Center’s Director, Ashley Hartz, is a “one woman show.” She is in charge of the training, care and feeding of the animals, keeping the stable clean and safe, hiring contract therapists, creating a budget and managing the books, marketing the programs available, and raising the funds to keep them going. She is always looking for volunteers and for therapists who can serve well in this niche job.
To learn more about the Tristate Therapeutic Riding Center, visit their website at tristatetherapeuticriding.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 423-339-2517.
You can learn more about Grayson and Alexander Disease by visiting graysonsladder.org.