Tuesday, December 01, 2009

SpiritHorse gives outdoor therapy to those with disabilities

By LES COCKRELL / Denton Record-Chronicle
lcockrell@dentonrc.com
At first glance, the tree-shaded facility might look no different from any of the small ranches or horseback riding stables that dot the Denton County landscape.
Horses graze in a fenced pasture, and riders on horseback wind their way down a nearby trail. In a small corral, an instructor offers support to a young student who seems delighted to be in the saddle.
It appears idyllic, but a closer look reveals that serious work is under way. This is SpiritHorse, which provides private equine-assisted therapeutic riding lessons. Clients include people with disabilities, at-risk youth, battered women, young people who have completed drug rehabilitation and abused children.
"We don't provide recreation, we provide health care," said Charles I. Fletcher, founder and chief executive officer of the Corinth center.
Fletcher combined a passion for horses and a love for children when he started SpiritHorse seven years ago after retiring from Rockwell International. Now 71, he estimated that he works about 100 hours a week at the center.
SpiritHorse serves about 425 clients, and 90 percent of them are children. Lessons are offered for free. The center receives no government funding, and financial support comes from donations and grants, Fletcher said.
"This is a ministry, and these kids deserve it," Fletcher said.
Staff members meet with client families to discuss therapy goals and directives from physicians before beginning a program.
Hourlong sessions include horse management duties such as leading, grooming and saddling, based on students' abilities.
"It's a learning experience," said Stephanie Wilhelm, a horse care specialist and instructor at SpiritHorse.
"Children saddle and unsaddle their horses," Fletcher said. "It builds trust, self-esteem and motor skills. No matter what their disability, they participate.
The center operates under two guiding principles, Fletcher said: "Love the children" and "Make all decisions in favor of the child, not the center."
Parents take part in the sessions, he said, a feature that separates SpiritHorse from some riding centers.
"We require parents to participate," Fletcher said. "They are the experts on the child."
Having parents get involved also helps transfer the learning process to the home, he said.
The center has a staff of seven full-time and 10 part-time instructors and relies on assistance from more than 500 parent-volunteers and about 50 community volunteers.
A seven-member board of directors sets policy and raises funds, Fletcher said. Five members of a medical advisory board work closely with the center's staff.
SpiritHorse serves clients in Denton, Collin, Cooke, Dallas, Grayson, Kaufman, Rockwall, Tarrant, Wichita and Wise counties and typically receives about five new applications a week. The organization has "graduated" 365 riders in the last seven years, Fletcher said.
In addition to its operation in Corinth, SpiritHorse now has licensed centers throughout the world – from Georgia, Iowa and Virginia to Scotland, Hungary and Uruguay.
For more information, visit www.spirithorsetherapy .com or call 940-497-2946.