When Janet Weisberg goes to work, she doesn’t sit in a cube, and she definitely doesn’t wear a suit. As the founder and executive director of Hold Your Horses, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with disabilities through equine-assisted therapy, her day is anything but ordinary.
It all began 22 years ago with an encounter in New York City. Weisberg was working in public relations and marketing, but was searching for some new inspiration in her life. While wandering around a horse stable on the Upper West Side one day, she peeked in on a class that involved kids with disabilities—and horses. “Why am I not doing this work?” she thought, and began researching her new dream career.
A master’s degree in occupational therapy (OT) and volunteer work eventually led her home to Minnesota, where she worked for a few years before branching off on her own. In 2006, Weisberg moved her practice to an idyllic hobby farm in Independence, known today as the home for Hold Your Horses, a nonprofit organization where half a dozen horses and experienced staff are dedicated to improving the lives of clients with various disabilities by harnessing the movement and power of a horse.
Occupational therapy that uses the movement of the horse to develop functional abilities involves the same developmental positioning and exercises that one might do on a table, mat or ball in a clinic, but, as Weisberg points out, “a living, breathing animal is a whole lot more dynamic and interesting.” Since most of her clients are kids, it’s important to keep sessions engaging. “[Hippotherapy] is really fun, and as soon as kids are having fun and experiencing a sense of play, then you’ve got them,” she explains.
A typical session starts out with some stretching, but most of the time is spent on the horse itself, working on various motor skills, sequencing tasks, core strengthening and mind-body connection exercises. One client will practice bowling from the horse, another will stretch back and touch the horse’s tail, or another will attempt standing in the stirrups, depending on which skills and muscles need strengthening.
The body-awareness piece is central to many of her clients’ needs, particularly kids with sensory issues, who are unable to challenge their vestibular systems (integral to balance and spatial orientation) on their own due to physical limitations. As Weisberg explains, “In order to fully develop, kids need to be all over the place and in all different positions.” Simply being on a horse automatically challenges a person’s balance and vestibular system, and gives them “exposure and opportunity to develop skills that will help them to live a more functional life.”
Jenna Dailey is 8 years old and has been attending Hold Your Horses since August 2012. Despite her birth defect that keeps both hemispheres of her brain from communicating, she can now ride a bike without training wheels, and she’s working on swimming. “She’s developed a lot more core strength,” says her mom, Steph Dailey. Weisberg explains that riding a horse is good for helping kids sit up because it challenges the postural muscles.
Aimee Blanchette’s daughter, Lila, is 3 and has cerebral palsy, but after only 30 minutes on the horse she could sit better on her own. “Our goal is to strengthen her core muscles so that she can sit on her own, crawl and maybe one day even walk,” says Blanchette. The natural movement of a horse is “good for moving the child’s hips in three planes of movement, and will help them with weight bearing and walking,” explains Weisberg.
But the benefits of hippotherapy extend beyond physical improvements. Lila was nearly nonverbal when she started riding, but spoke her first two-word combo while on her pony: “Hi Lily!” she said to her horse.
Although most clients at Hold Your Horses are children, Weisberg is happy to have a couple of adults participate in the program as well. Tami Kaminsen was devastated when she was diagnosed with MS five years ago. She is in her 50s, a busy middle school teacher, and had always enjoyed an active lifestyle. But the MS has meant she can’t do everything she had done before, like riding a bike or playing tennis. “There’s a lot of grief that goes along with [MS],” says Kaminsen. “So being able to sit on the horse and still do stuff is very powerful. It validates me as a capable person … and gives me joy.”
During Kaminsen’s weekly session at Hold Your Horses she can experience the best “medicine” she’s been offered yet: movement, power and grace, despite her own limited mobility. “[The horse] is an extension of my body … and there is this certain grace that comes with horses. It’s powerful but it’s graceful at the same time,” she explains. Sessions for Kaminsen involve lots of stretching and core strengthening, which she soon discovered are naturally encouraged while riding a horse. “When you’re in a sterile clinical environment, the exercises don’t mean anything, but when I’m out there [on a horse] I know I have to have a strong core so I can stay in the saddle right,” she says. “Everything feels so authentic when on a horse.”
Of course the horses on Weisberg’s team are no ordinary horses; they are carefully selected for temperament, size, training and other specific qualities. “Each horse is a little different,” says Weisberg, who purposely pairs horses with clients depending on their needs that day. “They’re like my equipment,” she adds. Dailey explains that her daughter was recently put on a horse with a slightly choppy walk. Although this might overwhelm some clients, for Jenna it was the perfect stimulation to remind her to focus and think about what she’s doing.
Although the horses may each have unique qualities, they do share one thing in common: “they truly are gentle giants,” says Weisberg, who is always amazed at the lack of fear of these big animals, even in the littlest kids. Kaminsen has noticed that the horses are so in-tune with their rider that if you just take a deep breath, they know. In fact, as Weisberg points out, horses can often sense a rider’s oncoming seizure before any symptoms begin, and will stop walking until it passes. “When a horse is engaged and connected to what is going on, they are an invaluable part of the team,” says Weisberg.
Although life at Hold Your Horses is tough work for the staff, clients and horses alike, at the end of the day it is worth it. “I can’t believe I get to do this,” says Kaminsen, who gets a thrill every time she drives up the long, tree-lined driveway or peeks inside the tack room with refinished floors and a chandelier. But her favorite part of the day is at the end when she gets to feed her horse a treat, brush him down and connect. Weisberg can’t agree more. “I’m so grateful every day. Every night I go into the barn and say thank you. None of us can do this work without them.”
For more information, visit the Hold Your Horses website.