One by one, 16-year-old Ashleigh Santistevan's crutches are placed on the ground next to the ramp. Physical therapist Carol Sitlington, a lean woman with a white cowboy hat and a red bandanna in her back pocket, shows unexpected strength as she lifts Santistevan onto a milk chocolate-colored horse.
"OK, what do you say to the horse?" Sitlington asked once Santistevan was situated on the saddle pad.
"Walk on," Santistevan said, beginning to smile as the horse lumbered toward the outdoor ring at the Creekside Guest Ranch in Hamilton.
Santistevan has cerebral palsy. She uses crutches to walk, but for an hour each Tuesday morning, she rides high atop her horse, participating in an equine therapy program for special needs students provided by the Moffat County School District.
She won't be alone in her therapy, however.
Twelve-year-old Camie Jo Conner is a slight girl wearing a pink shirt and a blue helmet that is a little too big for her head.
Camie Jo, who has Down syndrome, is already on her mocha-colored horse in the dirt arena, transferring neon-colored rings between two white posts.
"Ashleigh!" Camie Jo said happily when her partner entered the ring.
"We like to team up the kids so they can demo for each other," Sitlington said. "Camie will show Ashleigh how she picks up the rings, and they will take turns. It's helping to develop social skills and interaction that way."
This is the second year Sitlington, a physical therapist at the Moffat County School District, has been supervising the sessions. Throughout the morning, four teams of two students each will mount the horses and receive training in cognitive and social skills.
The sessions are a part of the Extended School Year program, which keeps special needs students in physical therapy year-round through activities such as swimming and bowling.
The equine answer
Sitlington said equine therapy, also called "hippotherapy," is designed to keep students from regressing during the summer months.
"But, we see gains in every student," she said. "It's great for their movement and sensory integration. Their strength, rhythm and balance are all working as they sit up on the horse. It's soothing and stimulating at the same time. It heightens their focus and adds interest to physical therapy. It's like physical therapy and speech therapy in one."
Therapists and parents alike see a benefit in the verbal and visual communication that takes place among the two students, Sitlington and the horse handlers.
Camie Jo's mother, Debbie Conner, said she saw a significant increase in her reading and math skills between the third and fourth grades.
"Each time, we notice a little more confidence," she said about her daughter's progress in the arena.
Each student has a spotter who holds or supports the student with the help of a belt with a harness on it. A horse handler leads the horse around the ring or weaves through orange cones.
Eventually, the riders will practice steering with reins, which exercises their core muscles, coordination and spatial awareness.
Sitlington said the motion of the horse mimics the movements associated with walking, except it is all achieved sitting down.
She watches from afar, occasionally approaching each team to offer encouragement and direction to both students and the therapists.
"Ashleigh really needed to work on her trunk strength," Sitlington said, watching the girl rock back and forth as the horse walked. "See, we could work on a therapy ball for a half an hour and not see the same movement. And, it's boring."
Camie Jo and her horse have stopped.
Instead of transferring the neon rings between the white posts, she decided she wants to put the rings on the cones instead.
"What a great idea," Sitlington said, running toward Camie Jo and her horse. "OK, so what do you say to your horse to get him going?"
"Walk on," Camie Jo said.
This time, she gave the horse a slight kick to get the horse moving.
Camie Jo said her favorite part is trotting, when the horse goes a little faster and bounces in rhythm.
"But no running, though," she said.
Sitlington said the therapy horses are unique. Their alertness and intelligence, combined with calmness and steady movement, is key to being a successful equine therapy horse.
"These are fabulous horses, the best I've ever worked with," Sitlington said. "They're strong and young. Normally you get old horses donated, but these have been trained since they were young. You really need them to trust people and their riders. And they are just great with the kids."
Betsy Kerste, Santistevan's grandmother, watched the session from her car in the parking lot.
"She's been riding her whole life," Kerste said about her granddaughter. "But with her surgery last year : it's so great for her balance and counterbalance that she's getting back. Physically, she does have the ability to walk on her own (without crutches), but out here, she's really gaining confidence."
Back in the ring, Santistevan is getting the hang of squeezing with her legs give the horse a little extra urge in addition to her voice.
"That is just so hard for her to do," Sitlington said. "She has so little strength and flexibility in her hips and pelvis. But look at how she uses her adductors to tell the horse to go."
As Santistevan rode away from her, Sitlington yelled across the arena.
"Look at her sitting up tall like that. Yeehaw!"
Nicole Inglis can be reached at 875-1793, or firstname.lastname@example.org