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Hippotherapy offered at Seabiscuit Therapeutic Riding Center near Willits

Ukiah Daily Journal logo Ukiah Daily Journal 6/30/2021 Karen Rifkin
a couple of people standing next to a horse: (Left to right) Erin Holzhauer, instructor and director of programming for Seabiscuit Therapeutic Riding Center; Eve Makdisi, pediatric physical therapist at Adventist Health Ukiah Valley; Juniper Downs, rider; Michelle Downs, Juniper’s mother; and Freya, therapy horse. (Photos by Karen Rifkin) © Provided by Ukiah Daily Journal (Left to right) Erin Holzhauer, instructor and director of programming for Seabiscuit Therapeutic Riding Center; Eve Makdisi, pediatric physical therapist at Adventist Health Ukiah Valley; Juniper Downs, rider; Michelle Downs, Juniper’s mother; and Freya, therapy horse. (Photos by Karen Rifkin)

Erin Holzhauer, instructor and director of programming for Seabiscuit Therapeutic Riding Center at Ridgewood Ranch (STRC), has been affiliated with the program since its inception in 1993.

Eleven years old at the time, she was part of a group of 4-H youth and families that created what was then called Mendocino County 4-H TRAIL—Teaching Riding as an Access to Independent Learning.

“I grew up here at Ridgewood Ranch and was lucky to have had that opportunity, that community and family support, especially from my mom, who is a horse enthusiast herself. Many of those who helped start the program are still connected to it today.

“We are our own entity borrowing from the wonderful history of the ranch, the healing and hope that comes with the story between Seabiscuit and Red Pollard. Partnering our philosophy with that has been really wonderful,” she says.

They started with ranch horses and the personal mounts of 4-H members, working with children and individuals with disabilities up to the age of 22. Over the years they have become a 501c3 nonprofit with a growing stable of five horses and a mini mule named Muffin.

They have experienced a great deal of growth over these 28 years and today STRC is a therapeutic horsemanship program dedicated to providing equine-assisted activities to children and adults who are challenged physically, developmentally, socially and/or emotionally.

They serve over 50 clients, ages 4 and up, working with people with disabilities and other diagnoses – from veterans with PTSD to those who need emotional support, all of whom come with professional referrals.

Erin, a PATH certified instructor—Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship—knows how to combine individuals with disabilities and horses in the safest way possible.

“My focus has always been the love of the human/horse relationship.”

She quotes Winston Churchill: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

“Horses are expert nonverbal communicators, really good at seeing us in a certain way in terms of how we are feeling; it shows up in our body language. They react to everything we put out.

“They have so much to offer, reflecting our behavior and interacting with us accordingly; there’s something really special about the relationship we can develop with them.”

A session at STRC can be with one-to-three riders, and volunteers provide support as side walkers or head walkers assisting clients in developing skills of horsemanship that will help them in their daily lives.

“A lot of what we do is create a positive social environment. Having multiple people working together on their horsemanship is great for creating community among the clients, volunteers and horses.”

It is not just about getting in the saddle and riding. They provide a horse that is safe and knows its job well enough to assist riders working to achieve their goals; it is the whole concept of horsemanship—how to get your horse, how to bridle and saddle, how to lead and how to ride.

“Not only can we build a relationship with another species but we can learn so much about our own communication, as well. During COVID there has been a new heightened level of appreciation for being here, outside, interacting as a community and being with the horses.”

a group of people walking down a street next to a horse: (Left to right) Erin Holzhauer, instructor and director of programming for Seabiscuit Therapeutic Riding Center; Keely Kooyers, Brandy’s mother; Brandy McGehee, rider; Eve Makdisi, pediatric physical therapist at Adventist Health Ukiah Valley; and Freya, therapy horse. © Provided by Ukiah Daily Journal (Left to right) Erin Holzhauer, instructor and director of programming for Seabiscuit Therapeutic Riding Center; Keely Kooyers, Brandy’s mother; Brandy McGehee, rider; Eve Makdisi, pediatric physical therapist at Adventist Health Ukiah Valley; and Freya, therapy horse.

Their most recent collaboration has been with Eve Makdisi, MPT (Master of Physical Therapy) and DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy), the pediatric physical therapist at Adventist Health Ukiah Valley.

“As a pediatric physical therapist, Eve is able to support and move the clients in ways that I cannot. The horse is the tool in that session as she helps the rider work on physical goals. What she is providing is special and unique; it really opens the doors for people,” says Erin.

While at the hospital clinic, Eve was working with a spina bifida client who had been participating in the STRC Program. The family encouraged her to go see for herself. In the spring of 2018, she drove up the Willits grade to the 5,000-acre ranch; was encouraged by Erin and others to start a hippotherapy program; reached out to Gary Maddox, director of rehabilitation at Adventist Health, about contracting with STRC; enrolled in PATH; took horseback riding lessons; and became a member of the American Hippotherapy Association.

She brings the clients and Adventist Health reimburses the program for the use of the horses and the space.

“I invite clients who I think will benefit from the movement of a horse in their rehabilitation. My clients generally have a diagnosis that would make them have some kind of gross motor delay—maybe a severe cognitive delay so they might not be able to learn, not be able to talk, hold on to the reins, nor get their feet into stirrups.

a little boy that is standing in the grass: Adventist Health Pediatric Physical Therapist Eve Makdisi guides Brandy McGehee while Freya waits patiently in the background. © Provided by Ukiah Daily Journal Adventist Health Pediatric Physical Therapist Eve Makdisi guides Brandy McGehee while Freya waits patiently in the background.

Eve has been working with 11-year-old Brandy McGehee toward improving her ability to walk. Brandy has cerebral palsy and cannot ambulate by herself; since working with the horses, she has improved significantly in her balance, her coordination and her ability to move independently about the house.

“She’s now initiating more movements on her own and can better isolate those movements in a more controlled manner—she can move with intention,” says Eve.

Five-year-old Juniper Downs, who has a genetic disorder called Rett Syndrome that affects only girls and causes significant delay in all areas, has been attending regularly since the program began in February of 2021.

“She has poor trunk control and leans to one side but, after spending time on the horse, her trunk control is markedly improved with more symmetry to her body,” says Eve.

Eve explains that the human pelvis performs certain complex motions while walking and the horse, although it has four legs, performs similar movements.

“When a horse takes a step, it facilitates that same motion for the pelvis of the human. As a therapist, I cannot do that, but the horse can. That is the magic behind this program.”

“Brandy and Juniper are feeling the walking motion of their pelvises that they would not be able to experience in any other intervention. It’s also beneficial for those with autism, Parkinson’s and other neurological conditions.”

Not enough can be said as to importance of these horses that receive specialized training to meet the needs of the clients.

“They have to be desensitized, exposed to a lot of intentional external stimulation: loud noises, being kicked or pulled, firecrackers, babies crying, spasms of riders.”

Erin refers to it as “bomb proofed.”

Equine assisted-therapy provides a range of activities to promote human physical and mental health; it is outdoors in a natural environment—not in an office—it is effective; and its benefits can be assessed quickly.

Treating the whole person, not only does this therapy provide specific movement for the clients and the opportunity for them to interact with another animal, it also treats the whole sensory system—visual, the rider is looking out, getting movement, close up and down distance; vestibular, starting and stopping, speed and movement;  proprioceptive, receiving pressure through contact with the horse; and somatosensory, interacting with smell, texture, tactile warmth and complex movement.

“I like that it’s real, it’s pure and the kids like doing it. It’s effective, allowing them to feel the natural movement of the horse, not trying to force or change anything, getting down to the basic movement our bodies are intended to do. Kids want to move and to give these kids who have not been able to experience normal movement that opportunity, is pure joy, freedom.

“It takes a community to support this type of program—staff and volunteers working before and after in caring for the horses; preparing the kids, creating a wonderful partnership for all those involved. And it gives their family members a chance to experience their children having fun. This is a natural thing; kids like horses; it’s a natural combination.”

The Willits Rotary Club and the Seabiscuit Therapeutic Riding Center will be hosting “Claws for Cause,” a fundraiser on Saturday evening, Sept. 4,  2021, at the Howard House on Ridgewood Ranch that will include an auction, live music by The Ed Reinhart Band and a dinner of live Maine lobster, filet mignon, appetizers, dessert, gelato, wine, beer and soft drinks prepared by Chef Adam Celeya. All proceeds will benefit the Seabiscuit Therapeutic Riding Center. Sponsorships are available and individual tickets are $100 each. For more information, contact Lydia Senter Colvig at 513-7155 or Aimee Gore at 354-0714.

If you are interested in volunteering with the Seabiscuit Therapeutic Riding Center program, call 391-3873.

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