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Making 'True Strides' on horses

Relatively new program at True Friends Camp Courage takes on disability challenges with therapy horses

By Ed DuBois

Little Wyatt Fieldseth of Buffalo was always walking on his toes.  Conventional physical therapy hadn't helped the five-year-old get his heels down.  But after taking up horseback riding at True Friends Camp Courage near Maple Lake, the muscles from his calves to his heels stretched and loosened.

"In about three to four months, he was walking heel to toe," said Shari Mangas, the director of True Strides Therapy Horses.

The program has helped many participants who are challenged by various disabilities.  Now in its third year, True Strides helps participants both physically and emotionally.  Mangas said riding horses strengthens core muscles and can help riders stand and sit upright better.  The "3D movement" of horse riding "lights up the brain" and helps it get more organized and developed while building motor pathways, she explained.


Over 60 participants

Mangas had been offering equestrian therapy through the Sharadise Therapeutic Foundation near Lake Maria State Park (just west of Monticello).  She was contacted by Camp Courage about starting an equestrian therapy program.

That was about three years ago, and since then, True Strides has steadily grown from a relative few participants to over 60 riders who come every week.

Besides Mangas, the program includes two other occupational therapists, and the barn manager, Donna Albury, is working on getting certified as a riding instructor.

The participants benefit from not only riding the horses, but also taking care of the horses while gaining a work ethic, Mangas mentioned.

"They love it, love it," said Albury.  "They don't think of it as therapy."

The program is offered at the Dudley Equine Center, which is located just a short distance beyond the Camp Courage entrance.  The facility was donated by a longtime supporter of Camp Courage, Bill Dudley.


Better outlook

Even before the equine center opened, Mangas had been offering camp programs involving horseback riding at Camp Courage.  She enjoys telling about the way the program helps participants.

Elli Hofmeister's story is a good example.  Juvenile Huntington's disease had affected her movement, emotions and thinking.  The 19-year-old Maple Lake resident came to True Strides in October 2016.

She was unable to raise her arms beyond 90 degrees.  Her lower back was tight, and she had trouble walking.

A program that included massage, stretching and horseback riding has helped her improve dramatically, Mangas said.  Hofmeister can now raise her arms 180 degrees, and she now walks much better.  She now volunteers to help other participants after her lesson each week.  Mangas said Hofmeister has a kind spirit and a never-ending smile, which keeps the therapists energized and in wonderful spirits.


Motivated by riding

Little Kadence McEwen, an Albertville five-year-old, has been challenged by an autism spectrum disorder.  She has had sensory integration issues, which made it hard for her to process visual information, Mangas said.  However, she is very sharp and, despite her disorder, she was reading at age four.

Working with the horses is a treat for McEwen.  At times when emotions would get the best of her and frustrate her, she was told, "You can do more riding if you listen, and no screaming."

Motivated by the enjoyment of riding, McEwen calmed down.

"The movement of trotting calmed her down," Mangas said.  "She was our star little girl at a recent horse show."


Scoop ball

McEwen has steadily improved, and she has begun to interact with other girls.  Screaming outbursts have decreased from about 90 percent of the time to 5 percent of the time, Mangas reported.  Trail riding at Camp Courage have been calming for McEwen.  Mangas added that the little girl's visual tracking is very good now.  Playing some games while riding has helped with eye-hand coordination.  One of the games, "scoop ball," involves catching a ball in a scoop while riding.


Hug a horse

Mangas noticed that caring for horses can lead to more caring for people.  For example, hugging horses can lead to hugging people.

Participants respond positively to learning how to care for the 11 True Strides horses.  They learn how to put on a saddle and bridle correctly.

"They love to take care of the horses, getting them ready, feeding them and giving them treats," Mangas said.


Stronger core, stronger legs

A girl with cerebral palsy, Daleney Teske, 16, of Buffalo, has benefited from the True Strides program.  Riding horses has increased her core strength and her leg strength.  Riding in a partially standing position with her knees bent has helped her improve her walk with better heel-toe steps.


Special events

The riding sessions take place throughout the year.  A few special events are scheduled.  An open house is being planned for September 2017.  A Halloween event was enjoyed last October, and for a Christmas event, Santa arrived with gifts provided by Paul's Pals (an organization in Minneapolis that enriches the lives of children with disabilities).


Positive effect

In numerous participants, including Wyatt Fieldseth, Elli Hofmeister, Kadence McEwen, and Daleney Teske, Mangas and the other therapists have seen both physical and emotional benefits.  On the emotional side, they have seen improved self-esteem, confidence and motivation.  They enjoy seeing the positive effect of human-animal bonding.

You can see more about True Strides on Facebook (Search for True Strides Therapy Horses.).


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