Hanson, KY – The sun has been up for a little over an hour when Carrie McColl and her volunteers begin brushing and cleaning hooves on a buckskin-colored mare for the morning's lesson. McColl is the Executive Director of the Kentucky Equine Abilities Center or KEAC.
She works with children and sometimes adults with disabilities ranging from autism to oppositional defiance disorder. But McColl's hesitant to describe her clients that way.
"We try not to label the kids based on their disability cause they are a child with a disability."
Seven-year-old Isaac is here for his third riding lesson. Isaac has Down's Syndrome. He is also a spritely kid with a mop of blonde hair and an affinity for dousing the horse Daisy with fly spray.
KEAC involves their kids in horse care as well as riding. McColl says it's common for people to think the program is just a glorified pony ride.
"A lot of places that you see, they put the kid on the horse, they walk around for an hour and it has great therapeutic benefit. But a lot of these kids, they can do patterns. They can do showmanship, which is on the ground and making the horse do pivots and back em up' and trot in hand' and things that it's hard for people without disabilities to do."
Isaac's family hopes that come October, he'll be able to compete in Special Olympics horse-riding. He's not there yet. McColl and two volunteers have to coax him to ride Daisy. When they finally get him in the saddle, Isaac's face lights up and he helps give the command to move forward.
" Now say "Walk on, Daisy!"' Walk on, Daisy!'"
Studies have linked equine-therapy programs to improved motor and communication skills in disabled children and adults, although researchers have been quick to say horse riding should be a supplement, not a substitute for traditional therapy programs.
Over the years, McColl has seen many children benefit from therapeutic riding. McColl has certification to teach disabled riders through the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association or NARH [NAR]. For her, seeing a child who couldn't sit up straight, support themselves on a horse is still overwhelming.
"It raises their self-esteem, this is something they couldn't do otherwise, or they felt that they couldn't. It's really amazing to see a child that is pretty much in a wheelchair most of the time get up on a horse and make it go . . . on their own . . . . It still . . . it still chokes me up seeing."
Isaac spends over half an hour on Daisy. McColl and a volunteer walk on either side of him to help balance and another volunteer leads the horse around the pen. Eventually, Isaac won't need the extra support. At the end, he gets a treat through a bottle of bubbles.
McColl has seen a huge interest in her program. In a recent open house the KEAC hosted, more than 150 people turned out for the event. That's almost triple the number she expected.
For the future, McColl is looking to get more volunteers to help take care of her therapy horses and monitor lessons. She has about thirty that come periodically, but says it's never enough. McColl only has the staff right now to take on twenty students. She's also working to get KEAC classified as a non-profit organization. Then she'll be able to apply for grants to help secure her horse riding haven.