Therapeutic Ride: Horse therapy proves to be perfect therapy for many

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By Mallory Bilger

MOUNT WASHINGTON - Finding just the right combination of treatments can be frustrating for the parents of children with a physical disability.

But Jeremy and Tara Armstrong discovered just what their son needed in the last place they would have expected to find it: a local horse farm.

Logan Armstrong, 6, was diagnosed with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia - the underdevelopment of the optic nerve during pregnancy - when he was six months old. ONH not only causes blindness, but also causes physical underdevelopment and unstable hormone levels. As a result of the ONH, he also suffers from Diabetes Insipidus - water diabetes - in which the body produces uncontrolled amounts of urine. Logan's speech and motor skills are also delayed because of ONH.

Tara said in April her son was undergoing several therapies, but was showing little progress. He preferred isolation, struggled to speak and was disturbed by loud noises.

In an effort to find different therapies that would benefit Logan, Tara contacted a family friend in Cincinnati who is dealing with ONH as an adult. He suggested therapeutic horseback riding.

At first, Jeremy and Tara were skeptical. But they were willing to try anything to help Logan.

"It's all about him," Tara said. "Everything we do is for him."

Tara began researching equine therapy on the Internet and discovered Sycamore Pond Horse Center on Stringer Lane in Mount Washington. The center is owned by German natives Michael Breindl and Christiane Koenemund. The two are certified trainers.

With the center being so close to home, Jeremy and Tara immediately enrolled Logan.

He was Sycamore Pond's first patient.

"I was amazed that they had just gotten started and that he is there first patient," Tara said.

The progress that Logan's family witnessed over the next several months astonished them.

"This is what has brought his speech out," said Logan's grandmother, Barbara Eisenbeis. "It's amazing. We are so excited about it."

Logan spends one hour each Saturday morning with one of Sycamore Pond's five horses, and even spends time with farm's donkey, Jack. Christiane starts Logan's session by engaging him in the grooming process, which improves his sensory skills, as well as familiarizes him with the horse. He touches each brush and learns which ones are used on the horse's coat and which are for the main and tail.

After Logan and the horse have gotten acquainted, Christiane helps Logan put on his riding helmet and he is taken to the mounting block where he receives a bit of assistance mounting the horse. Once Logan has indicated that he is comfortable, the ride begins.

Michael and Christiane stay with Logan during his ride but Logan sits on the horse unassisted. The ride often starts out slow with Logan giving the horse a command to walk. After a few laps trotted around the barn, Christiane and Michael speed up the ride. Logan can be heard laughing and responding during the session. He has also learned the names of several of the horses he's ridden.

"They say the movement of the horse stimulates the body," Tara said.

Tara was apprehensive that Logan would fear the horses at first, but she said he instantly bonded with them.

"He gets so excited," Tara said.

Logan's sessions have given him a new lease on life, Tara said. Logan now speaks in complete sentences and will allow family and friends to hug him and shake his hand. Logan has become more aware of his body and his posture has improved, as well as his sensory and motor skills. His teacher at the Kentucky School for the Blind has also observed the improvements.

"We were trying everything but we weren't aware at the time that we would see the results that we do now," Tara said.

Jeremy said he is amazed at Logan's progress and was impressed with the relationship he has built with the horses, especially Sundance.

"He is talking and has a better relationship with Sundance now," Jeremy said.

Tara said she wished she had known about equine therapy and Sycamore Pond sooner.

Christiane and Michael moved to Mount Washington from California almost three years ago to open Sycamore Pond Horse Center. Christiane is a retired special education teacher and has worked with horses for more than seven years. Michael has worked with horses since he was a child.

Sycamore Pond is accredited by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. Christiane is a certified NARHA instructor, as well as a certified Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association instructor. Breindl has a Ph.D. in biology, more than 20 years experience in horse farm management and more than 50 years experience in horsemanship.

Christiane and Michael said they know that animals, especially horses, can bring out characteristics in special needs children that conventional therapies cannot.

"I realized how therapeutic they were with myself," Christiane said.

Sycamore Pond has also been working with children from the Sunrise Children's Service's Spring Meadows boys home in Mount Washington.

"It's very empowering for the patient," she said. "It can also humble someone. With the horses, they recognize who they are facing. Horses are very emotional beings. A horse will mirror you. You cannot hide from a horse."

Christiane has enjoyed seeing Logan's progress and hopes that more children can benefit from equine therapy.

"We know that shortly after therapy began the teachers were recognizing that he was talking and doing more," Christiane said.

Equine therapy can benefit an array of special needs children and adults, Christiane said. People with physical and mental disabilities can be empowered by therapeutic horseback riding, she added.

As for Logan, he will continue his therapy and Sycamore Pond, knowing that at the end of each session, he will receive a reward.

"Let's get a milk shake," Logan said, as the Amrstrong's left the center last Saturday.

Along with the equine therapy, Logan receives speech, occupational, physical, chiropractic, CranioSacral and orientation and mobility therapies. Tara said although there is no cure for Logan's ONH, she wants people to know there is help available.

"We want other parents and caregivers to know how much the therapeutic horseback riding has helped our son so they too can get help," she said.

Jeremy and Tara said Logan's progression is more encouraging every day. Although they know Logan will never be normal by societal standards, they believe he is exactly the boy he was created to be.

" We feel like God gave him this for a reason and God gave him to us for a reason," Tara said. "He is who he is. I would not change him for anything."