Horse-riding therapy reigns in self esteem

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Through the efforts of two Craig residents, the city now has a program and an arena dedicated to helping disabled children.

Each Tuesday and Thursday, since July 8, Handprints Therapy's Erica Stewart and Alisa Komstock, who owns Arena of Dreams Riding Academy, have been getting together and providing an opportunity for disabled children to ride horses.

"It's called 'hippo' therapy, with hippo meaning horse in Greek," said Stewart, who founded Handprints Therapy and is an occupational therapist. "It's using a horse as part of therapy for children with disabilities."

The Arena of Dreams Riding Academy, which is located behind the Ridgeview subdivision, is set up to somewhat resemble an obstacle course. Once the child is on the horse, the child is then asked to perform a variety muscle strengthening tasks, such as removing and replacing colored rings from different baskets.

"We try to put them in strengthening positions," Stewart said. "It helps them work on balance, and the horse is also a great motivator."

The Handprints' riding therapy clientele currently numbers six children, whose disabilities range from cerebral palsy to Down's syndrome.

"It's really a wide variety and we gear each lesson depending on what the child needs," Stewart said. "Some kids might need more of a communication thing. For others it's more of a physical thing. And as a therapist, my job is to gear each lesson to what they need."

Handprints also offers a small group therapeutic riding class, which includes games such as "Follow the Leader" and "Red light, Green Light."

Stewart said so far the children have responded well.

"They've all really liked it a lot," she said. "It's fun to see them on a horse because each session their confidence grows. It's just a great opportunity for a kid to get on a horse. We have provided safety with the horse leader and the side walkers, and they have to wear a helmet. So it's a safe environment. Not only physically, but mentally and emotionally."

Stewart said the riding therapy sessions also help establish a sense of confidence.

"They can have contact with the horse and it gives them a chance to be up high, and everyone else is down low," Stewart said. "So it's a self-esteem thing, too. And it gives them control. A lot of them overcome their fears. Some are scared when they get on the horse, and by the end of the session, they're confident and can do so much more."

Komstock, who specifically built the Arena of Dreams Riding Academy for therapeutic purposes, also provides the horses and tack.

Komstock said she had been looking for a way to help children.

"I had always wanted to get involved with handicapped children," Komstock said. "And I always wanted to do something for the children involving the horses that I owned."

Komstock, who serves as the horse leader, said she has also seen the program make a difference for the children.

"It helps to motivate them," Komstock said. "It inspires them and helps their attitude, and helps them become stronger. When they're on top of the horse, they're telling us where to go. They're in control and they're in charge. So that helps them motivate themselves."

Komstock said the therapy also serves as an educational activity, where they get to pick the rings and have to decide what color matches the rings in the buckets.

Joanna Santistevan's daughter, Ashleigh, who has cerebral palsy, took part in hippo therapy Thursday.

"I think it's a great program," Santistevan said. "It has made a difference for Ashleigh. Her muscles are much looser. And she's been riding all her life, so she's used to this program. I would definitely recommend it."

Santistevan said in the past, she had to drive to Steamboat Springs weekly to have Ashleigh take part in a similar program.

Stewart said Handprints is not currently accepting riders to the program, but is looking to increase its volunteer base.

"This year, we're not taking anymore riders, but we do want to expand and take more riders next summer," Stewart said. "We wanted to start small so we could get the program started off right. But we can always use more volunteers. And if anyone would like to sponsor a child, they can also do that."

The Arena of Dreams Riding Academy follows all guidelines established by the North American Riding Handicapped Association.

The academy also offers able-bodied riding lessons for anyone who is interested in learning how to ride a horse.

For more information about Handprints Therapy, contact Erica Stewart at 629-2155.

For more information about the Arena of Dreams Riding Academy, contact Alisa Komstock at 826-9760.

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