WV horse therapy program aids those with disabilities

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — Despite heavy storm clouds rolling in above 1952 Files Cross Road, Aiden Sowers, 4, who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), shouted to his father, Don, from their vehicle parked on the gravel roadway that the rain had not started falling and they should be able to ride the horses at the equine therapy group Horses with Hearts.

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"I know buddy, hold on," Don said. "See, this is something that he looks forward to every time we get ready to come here. For a kid with special needs, their world is a little bit smaller than ours. But coming here, riding, they have no idea they're working on their social and behavioral issues. They just know that suddenly their world is a bit bigger."

For Don Sowers, volunteering with the therapy group was a family affair started years ago when his now-20-year-old stepdaughter, Riley, began volunteering as a teen.

Though he said he spent years watching other people's children benefit from the time spent riding horses and doing small exercises with the other volunteers, he never anticipated having two small boys who would need and "greatly benefit" from the program.

The Sowers family fostered Aiden and his biological brother, Ryley, 5, who has ADHD and autism, for two years after the brothers were removed from an abusive home.

As of February of this year, the boys now sport the Sowers last name.

"When they came to us three years ago, they had very, very poor gross motor skills," Don said. "They didn't have things that a lot of kids just have, that come naturally. We would give them cereal, and they would put it on the table and put their mouth to the table. It was tough, but we worked with them by putting cereal in ice cube trays so they had to use pincher grip, which they didn't have, to feed themselves. It's been a lot of different interventions, but this has been a huge part of this."


Entirely volunteer based, Horses with Hearts, a premier accredited riding therapy center through PATH International, began as a dream by Kay Barkwill, founder, to make one girl's dream a reality.

Barkwill said her husband's spur-of-the-moment decision to purchase a pony for their daughter at a sale threw her family into the equine show world, but it was a wheelchair-bound, 8-year-old girl named Lindsey Connelly that led Barkwill to create the program that benefits people like Aiden and Riley every day.

"I met Lindsey at the Apple Harvest Festival when she was six months post-op on a cancerous brain tumor," Barkwill said. "The surgery left her with swelling on her spine and left her blind and confined to a wheelchair. Prior to moving here form Pennsylvania, she had a pony, and she loved riding, and we wanted to find a way to get her on a pony using the show pony my daughter had outgrown. In 2005, after I learned about it, everywhere I went I talked about it, telling others to start it. Finally, one day Lindsey said, 'When do you get that God wants you to do it?' I gave her the 35,000 reasons I couldn't do it, and she said, 'God doesn't call the qualified, he qualifies the called.'"

After attending conferences and deciding she could do this, Barkwill said she asked the Connellys to bring Lindsey to her in April so she could try to get Lindsey on a horse.

"At 15, at the end of July 6, 2006, Lindsey passed away," Barkwill said through tears, looking out over the Horses with Hearts property. "We never got her on a horse. The coliseum will be named after her, the Lindsey Connelly Memorial Coliseum. Everyday when I decide to give up, I look back at Lindsey, and though she didn't think she suffered, she did, and if I quit all of that would've been in vain."

With Connelly's impact still clear, Barkwill said the group's core objective is to make sure every person understands they are a person of great value.

Barkwill said individuals with physical and mental disabilities don't feel they are equal or valued and in the growth the Horses with Hearts group has seen — the kids walking and talking for the first time — they see they are "beyond worth it."

"We've had many kids who were told they'd never walk who now walk because of riding, because the horse's gait is the closest thing to a human gait so by riding, individuals are building core," Barkwill said. "We've also found by riding the horse, it's getting those kinds of kids and individuals exercise whether they realize it or not. Miracles happen in this arena."

Among three two-month sessions throughout the year, groups of 30 to 35 riders are able to interact with the animals and volunteers and build relationships that foster continued growth and provide education to both families and volunteers about the "remarkable things" the human body can do through this therapy.

Barkwill said in hopes of continuing its growth and impact, the group has just sent seven people to start their equine specialist certification to add to the five certified riding instructors the group already has.


For the Sowers boys, the therapies provided by the volunteers and horses at Horses with Hearts have expanded beyond physical strength into the realm of mental and social therapies, a kind of therapy Barkwill said she is working toward certifying for the organization.

"I've had the unique ability to see it through the other side. I got to see these improvements in other people's children, and it was wonderful, but when you see them in your own child . . . it brings tears to my eyes," Don said. "To be honest, I well up when I think about it. It's wonderful to see all of these children improving both physically and mentally."

Along with following instructions during exercises like matching colored rings to corresponding cones, using fine motor skills to put a stuffed animal into a mailbox and adjusting to wearing articles of clothing or helmets that once caused sensory overload, Riley and Aiden now enjoy the games provided by the volunteers, going so far as to offer high fives and signing "thank you" as they accomplish new goals.

Barkwill said advances seen in children like the Sowers brothers are only encouragements for the multitude of other kinds of therapies that can be provided to other individuals who suffer from mental disorders, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction.

Barkwill said the new mental health riding therapies would also allow Horses with Hearts to work with the school systems in addressing children of abuse, as well as bereavement counseling, the Boys and Girls Club, the Rescue Mission, the senior center and the Veterans Affairs Hospital, as well.

"There's no demographic this organization will not touch once we get the funding and the facilities," Barkwill said. "I've heard countless, heartbreaking stories of hurt, and every time they said when they contemplated suicide, they went to a place like ours, spent time with the horse and it helped them live to see another day. If we can provide these people with a place to go when they're having those suicidal thoughts or want to shoot up . . . they can come here, ask for a horse and have that one-on-one time. It's incredible what these animals and these types of therapies provide to people."

Barkwill said she hopes with continued support from the community and fundraising efforts on the organization's part that Horses with Hearts will not only be able to implement new therapy certifications, but it will be able to continue to grow its properties to include specific facilities to various mental and physical disorders as well the larger indoor coliseum

Until then, Barkwill said the group will continue to donate its time, effort and care to growing the program to help every person it can so the successes seen by Riley, Aiden and countless others can continue to be spread throughout the Eastern Panhandle.

"Children, adults even, that live in a smaller world than most of us, it gives them something outside of that world," Don said. "And it gives them another little family here that encourages them and cheers them on and is almost as excited about their accomplishments as I am.

"I don't have the words to tell you how fond of this program I am . . . I don't have words to paint this picture for you sufficient enough to show you what this programs means for my boys and other kids like them."


Information from: The Journal, http://journal-news.net/