‘Miracle horses’ facilitate healing of body, mind and spirit at Pikes Peak Therapeutic Riding Center
Story and Photos By Lincoln Rogers
Spared by fires that consumed the Black Forest region north of Colorado Springs last summer, Pikes Peak Therapeutic Riding Center remains an oasis of healing for those disabled in body, mind and/or spirit.
The concept of using horses to help people with various disabilities experience the reality of progress and hope in their lives might seem miraculous, but it’s a part of everyday life for the volunteers and staff at PPTRC.
“I think it works because (our horses) help clients beat the odds,” said Dayna Jenkins, PPTRC’s volunteer development manager. “I think the physical benefit of learning balance and learning how to sit up straight, have that core and trust an animal, you get both a physical benefit and also an emotional one. There’s no machine, there’s no person that could give you that gift. Horses are so unique in that aspect. Even if you are in rodeo and ranching, you really have that benefit and that connection with your horse. For us, we just are in the business to help those with disabilities.”
Originally named “Acts 19:11” — because of the “miracle” of therapeutic riding — PPTRC started in 1981 after several families asked founder Gay O’Rourke for horseback riding lessons for their children with disabilities and illnesses. The Bible verse refers to God doing “miracles through Paul,” which was the name of their first pony.
Since incorporating in 1982, the organization went on to become a PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) certified facility, which means it provides a higher level of professional treatment than a non-PATH certified facility. As a result, PPTRC provides quality equine-assisted activities/therapies to individuals facing physical, cognitive, emotional, behavioral and learning challenges. Those activities and therapies include hippotherapy, therapeutic riding classes and equine-facilitated psychotherapy, along with a Horses for Heroes program that treats service members at no charge.
“We are a premier accredited center,” Jenkins explained about their standing with PATH. “Insurance companies, when they look at this, they want to see that. It is titled a Premier PATH Accredited Center. Our instructors have to have their certification to be a PATH instructor. What makes us who we are, really, is PATH.”
To provide professional therapies, 16 horses of varying breeds are boarded and used with clients at the facility in Black Forest, which is leased to PPTRC by the Pikes Peak Range Riders Foundation for just $1 per year.
It’s a generosity without which they wouldn’t survive.
“We could not do this without that,” Jenkins said about the charitable lease. “No way in any world could we do that. We are very grateful for this facility and what they do for us.”
Along with much needed contributions, 140 volunteers show up on a regular basis to help create miracles of hope and healing with clients ranging in age from two to 82, including those with issues relating to military service. Due to their proximity to Colorado Springs, serving members of the military was a natural extension of their program.
“In sharing the ways of the horses - their needs, fears, motivations and relationships - we cultivate an environment of safety and authenticity that is elusive in the daily lives of many,” shared Nancy Beers, PPTRC program director since 2007, about working with those in the military. “One way to portray what happens is that we see people ‘thaw out’ in the presence of the horses. Not only is it gratifying, it’s an honor and a privilege.”
Whether it is within the indoor arena, in outdoor arenas and/or on “sensory trails,” clients with physical handicaps, cognitive disorders and emotional issues all find healing through their interaction with a horse.
What makes it even more special is the optimism and hope their family members receive along the way.
“(He went) from struggling to just sit up and roll over to crawling within the first two months he was here,” shared Amanda Puryear of Colorado Springs about her two and half-year-old son, Landon, who has Prader Willie syndrome.
The impact of Landon’s progress at PPTRC was revealed by tears welling in his mother’s eyes as she watched him take unsteady, but unassisted, steps from the arena gate and into her waiting arms.
“It’s exciting,” Puryear said in a voice full of emotion. “You expect, when you have a baby, at six months they are going to do this (and) at a year they are going to do that. Everyone is so excited when they do those things and Landon was struggling just to move at six months. So to see him actually be able to do that ... ” she paused as he teetered toward her, joy covering both their faces ... “it’s heartwarming. It’s very special. It’s more exciting for me, because it’s something that I ... I wondered if it was ever going to happen.”
“I was not familiar with hippotherapy at all,” said Suzanne Donehower, whose 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, has been treated at PPTRC for five years.
When first enrolling Sarah in the program, Donehower didn’t know quite what to expect.
“The physical aspect of what it’s done for her, in strengthening her, that (was) unexpected,” she added. “Being able to get stronger through the horseback riding ... that has been a huge help for her.”
Like Amanda Puryear and her son, Landon, Suzanne Donehower has also experienced the extraordinary combination of horses and healing at PPTRC. Her brush with the miraculous, however, came through watching four strangers dedicate themselves to her daughter inside the arena during each and every one of her hippotherapy sessions (each hippotherapy client has a horse leader, two side walkers and an instructor/therapist with them in the arena).
It is a feeling she thinks everyone should experience.
“To see four people dedicated to helping my child on a horse in that arena ... it’s just neat,” said Donehower. “You see something bad on the news (all the time) and you say, ‘no, there are still people that care.’ You need that,” she finished with passion. “You need to see that in society, and need to be reminded of that.”