Partners for Progress Provides Hope, Healing and Horses
Born a bright, curious, loving child, Rhiannon began retreating into a world of silence when only 16 months old. Like many autistic children, she struggled with focus, social skills and communication.
As she grew, she communicated one thing quite clearly: a love of horses. Driving past farms near their rural home in northern Illinois, Rhiannon made it known that her mother should stop the car so she could watch the horses – windows down, all year round.
And then she experienced her first pony ride at age 4.
“From the minute we put her on a pony, there was a difference in her aura and her laughter and the way she held herself,” says Rhiannon’s mother, Anne Margaret Huffman. “This pony was stimulating her in a very positive way.”
So when they found Partners for Progress, they found hope.
A therapeutic riding center with a clinical approach, the Wauconda-based nonprofit brings together the passions of founder Diane Helgeland.
“What we do every day adds to someone’s quality of life,” says Helgeland, who has a background in special education and therapeutic riding, or hippotherapy. “What we can do with the horses is endless.”
She says hippotherapy works because horses and humans move with the same gait. While on horseback, the rider’s body moves the way it’s supposed to, and the brain processes that movement as walking.
“Riding challenges every system in the human body and rewires the brain to allow the rider to do it,” Helgeland says. “There’s no man-made equipment that can give the kind of therapy a horse does.”
Though Partners for Progress serves some adult populations, including veterans, the vast majority of its clientele consists of children with a variety of physical, mental and emotional challenges.
“Every child that comes in here is assessed by a therapist,” explains Helgeland. “We then generate goals and match the child to a horse.”
More than 175 participants come through the center every week. They record every ride and review progress every 10 weeks – a structured approach that has led to a 79 percent success rate.
With just a skeleton staff, Helgeland relies heavily on dozens of generous volunteers. And 18 very special horses are chomping at the bit to help.
“We want to give the client the best type of therapy we can, so we’re really particular about our horses,” Helgeland says. “Our horses are in the prime of their life.”
They primarily use certified Quarter horses, but each animal differs in many ways. From size to gait and demeanor, every horse has been picked for a specific reason – to challenge the various issues faced by the children.
For example, Rhiannon responded particularly well to a gray mare named Fiona, whose bouncy gait provides the sensory input her body seeks.
After seven years in the saddle, Rhiannon, now 13, has regained her ability to talk and shown unimaginable improvement in everything from patience and focus to motor skills and muscle control.
Her mother sums it up simply: “The horses help them in ways we cannot.”
Riding can lead to remarkable gains because it strengthens core muscles.
“If we don’t have core strength, it affects everything,” Helgeland says.
Beth Anderson saw that firsthand after her 3-year-old son Owen nearly drowned in 2011. Without oxygen for 18 minutes, he suffered a brain injury that left him unable to walk, talk or eat.
Though doubtful, the Andersons decided to try hippotherapy after several of Owen’s therapists recommended it.
In the beginning, an adult rode behind Owen. But before long, Owen was strong enough to ride solo, enjoying games like toss-the-beanbag. His surprised mother has even seen him get on hands and knees atop the horse – a feat known as “four-point.”
After two years of therapeutic riding, Owen, now 6, is able to sit up, pull himself up, walk with a walker and eat by mouth.
“Owen’s core is so much stronger,” Anderson says. “Now he’s eating what we eat.”
She calls the program a “game-changer.”
“We were so skeptical, but we have seen slow and steady gains,” she says. “Hippotherapy has been a huge part of Owen’s recovery.”
Working with those gentle giants builds trust as well as muscle. And as kids interact with staff, volunteers and other riders, they gain self-esteem and social skills.
“We do everything in groups as much as possible – even that has magic,” Helgeland says.
Kids are also taught to groom horses and take care of tack. Those who are able learn about giving back by volunteering at the center.
But the horses themselves offer the biggest lesson in giving.
“What these horses give is unbelievable,” Huffman, Rhiannon’s mother, says. “My daughter always had an attraction to horses, but not in my wildest dream would I have imagined she somehow knew that horses would help fix her.”
Hurray for Hippotherapy
Partners for Progress in Wauconda, located about 45 miles northwest of Chicago, offers therapeutic riding for only about one-third of the actual cost. Fundraisers such as the annual Family Summerfest & Participant Horse Show help keep costs down for clients.
People can support this innovative program and enjoy some old-fashioned family fun by attending this year’s Summerfest. The popular event features live music, a pig roast, petting zoo, face painting and carnival games with prizes, as well as a horse show featuring the program’s inspiring young riders. This year’s Summerfest takes place Sunday, Aug. 3, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Learn more about the event or how to get involved with the therapeutic riding programs at Partners for Progress at partnersforprogressnfp.org or (847) 226-1300.