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WWU Horse Enjoys Summer Therapy Work

by Leah Hohmeier

FULTON, MO – During the summer, many horses in the William Woods University equestrian program are leased out to various lesson and show programs. But for one William Woods horse, this summer was different.

R.J., a half-Arab registered with the Pinto Horse Association of America, traveled to Arkansas to participate in the Equestrian Zone’s hippotherapy and therapeutic riding program.

R.J. was donated to the western barn from a home in Iowa in December of 2008, and he was "green-broke," meaning he had very little training. During the spring semester of 2009, he was projected by WWU student Kate Lawrence, who graduated in May 2009.

During "projecting" a student in the equestrian program is paired up with an individual horse to train, riding more often than the traditional twice-a-week lesson, and being the only rider to work with that particular horse.

"R.J. is nothing special when looking at him from a professional horse standpoint, but he is priceless when it comes to his personality, cuteness and willingness to keep trying," said Lawrence. "R.J. never refused to do anything I asked."

The unusual arrangement of leasing a WWU horse to a therapy barn for the summer came about when Ariel Finkenbinder, a 2002 WWU graduate, visited Fulton for Alumni Weekend. She is a therapeutic riding instructor at the Equestrian Zone, a barn in Russellville, Ark., that specializes in hippotherapy and therapeutic riding.

According to their website, hippotherapy is a "physical, occupational and speech therapy treatment strategy that utilizes equine movement... to achieve functional outcomes." Therapeutic riding is "a term that encompasses a variety of equine activities… with an emphasis on the development of riding skills."

Therapeutic riding is a growing movement, and to keep current with the latest equestrian trends, William Woods recently added a concentration in therapeutic riding within the equestrian science major. Students also have the option to become certified through NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association).

WWU hosted an Equestrian Special Olympics in 2008, with the help of therapeutic riding students and other equestrian science majors.

William Woods equestrian instructor Jennie Petterson helped to facilitate the lease of R.J. to the Equestrian Zone.

"R.J. wasn’t the first horse that popped into my head as a possible therapy horse, but because he was so good natured around the WWU students, I thought he just might work out.  I was also confident that as a WWU grad, Ariel would know what to expect in terms of exposure and handling."

R.J. took to the therapy program like a fish to water.

"He was such a joy," said Finkenbinder. "He carried riders with high tone, low tone, autism, cerebral palsy, ADHD, down’s syndrome and many more. Whatever we needed, he provided. R.J.’s movement was just what the therapists needed for many of their riders—his calm rhythmic pace helped them feel secure, but he also has the ability to provide a great range of increasing difficulty and challenge depending on his pace."

Amy and Steve Oatis, parents of one of the riders, had wonderful things to say about the impact that R.J. had on their daughter.

"Lilly’s therapist discovered that R.J.’s size and temperament are ideally suited to Lilly’s needs, and as a result, Lilly made great progress during her time with him this summer. Horses open doors of communication for children on the autism spectrum in ways that are seemingly magical. We know R.J. is needed at your school, but we hope you will consider letting him return to the Equestrian Zone next summer and when he is ready to retire, because he has helped our daughter immensely."

The Equestrian Zone has "flagged" R.J.’s file, so that when his time at William Woods comes to an end, they will be notified and given the option to purchase him.

"We will jump at the chance to borrow R.J. back any chance we get and maybe someday he might be ready to retire to our program when he is finished with his ’school.’ We are very grateful for the chance to have R.J. spend his summer with us and as a result, many people have learned about William Woods," said Finkenbinder.

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