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The healing power of horses

Michelle Casas Groogan
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Tanner Frazar

BARN TIME Tanner Frazar enjoys his hippotherapy sessions with Ty, one of the therapy horses at Special Cheers. (Photo: Sheila Scott Photography)

Buzz, Coco, Magic and Gizmo live in one of those patches of country that still exists within the urban concrete jungle of West Houston.

There, on 240 acres under a canopy of pines and live oaks, you’ll hear the soft thuds of horses’ hooves and the crunching of twigs along the meandering trails of the non-profit Special Cheers. Here, horses and their human caretakers are making a big difference in the lives of children and adults with physical, developmental and emotional challenges.

Hippotherapy is therapeutic treatment that uses physical, occupational and speech interventions with the aid of a horse. It works by stimulating physical and cognitive abilities. For people with limited mobility, the gait of a horse offers a natural rhythm upon which to build.

Allison Frazar of Bellaire saw the positive effects of regular hippotherapy with her son Tanner, who is quadriplegic and has cerebral palsy. Tanner Frazar, now 19, started going to Special Cheers 10 years ago.

“The horses just help the child integrate. There is something unspoken that takes place that only they know, and it’s something so meaningful that it moves our kids forward,” said Allison. “We’re always inside depending on machines. It’s just different to be outside to be with these horses. I can see it in his face; it’s just so much freedom for him.”

Here, retired and rescued horses still have just enough ‘giddy-up’ to be the perfect match for their riders, who benefit from a treatment that eases anxiety and improves physical health while also being a fun adventure.

“It gives the child a sense of peace and placement on this earth, and that gives the family normalcy,” says Fritzi Glover Strowmatt, the founder, who, for the past 15 years, has guided the reins of this horse-driven healing. She is a registered occupational therapist and member of the American Hippotherapy Association. “When I put a child on top of Sancha or Max, he becomes one with the horse. He is immediately grounded and is able to connect with others, and that is when learning happens.”

Despite their size and strength, the horses wait patiently at the mounting block no matter how nervous their riders may be. Guides then lead the horses into the woods for trail rides, 20-40 minutes long. The average horse takes 120 walking steps per minute; that allows for 120 chances for the disabled rider to experience movement that can’t be replicated by other equipment. The therapy has been drawing riders who have emotional or behavioral challenges associated with autism.

Lynn Kelly makes the drive from River Oaks every Saturday with her 22-year-old son, Bill Kelly, who has autism. “Bill had some pretty serious behaviors with hitting and kicking when he was younger. Special Cheers provided a very safe and calming environment through animals,” said Lynn. “The motion of riding is one aspect, but what Bill got mentally was more important. It was an activity he really enjoyed.”

Lynn says before Bill started riding he didn’t speak. “He was nonverbal. These activities lit up portions of his brain.” Now Bill regularly greets his many friends at Special Cheers.

Bellaire resident and realtor Lisa Reichek’s son, Spencer, was more sensitive about the world around him than typical kids, a condition therapists call sensory integration disorder. After about six years of riding, Reichek says, his challenges gradually disappeared. “He used to be really afraid of animals, but he loves them now. Just being out in nature and getting on the horse seemed to be a calming experience for him.”

Now he returns to Special Cheers during summers to volunteer as a camp helper. And last year he chose Special Cheers as his Bar Mitzvah Tzedakah charity project.

Barbara Blades-Lines lives near Tanglewood and considers therapeutic riding a key part of her son Austin’s developmental success. “He was considered non-verbal as a child, but during one of his therapeutic riding lessons a stranger asked him who he was riding, and my non-verbal son said his first spontaneous sentence, “I ride Squirrel!”

It was a heart-melting moment for Barbara, whose son is now 18.

Special Cheers, a neighbor of the Addicks Reservoir, was ravaged by the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey. All the horses were rescued, but equipment and cabins were lost. Parents rallied, and a gala helped raise funds to get everyone who needs it back in the saddle again.

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