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Therapeutic riding center to open

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SpiritHorse of Virginia founder Heather Thomas, (left) and her mother, Shelly Thomas, stand with one of the horses that will be used for free therapeutic riding sessions at their farm in Penhook.

Friday, March 13, 2009

By KIM BARTO - Bulletin Staff Writer

When Heather Thomas’ parents asked about her vision for their Penhook farm, she said she wanted to use their horses to help people.

A year and a half later, 17-year-old Heather’s wish is becoming a reality. Heather, the daughter of Ed and Shelly Thomas, has founded SpiritHorse of Virginia Inc., a therapeutic riding center that will offer free services to qualified people with disabilities.

The center will hold its grand opening from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, with festivities including free food, face painting, photos taken with horses, a farm animal petting zoo, crafts, games and a silent auction.

When Heather first started mulling the future of the farm, she was intrigued by therapeutic riding’s benefits for children with autism. She thought of her 11-year-old cousin, Michael, who lives in New Jersey and has severe autism.

“I thought, I could probably do this and benefit him in the process of doing it,” Heather said.

Heather and her parents began researching therapeutic riding programs. They came across the Web site for the original SpiritHorse in Corinth, Texas, which was created by Charles Fletcher seven years ago, and decided to model their program after his.

SpiritHorse of Virginia, a Christian nonprofit organization, is the second facility in the country to use Fletcher’s model and offer the services free of charge.

The idea of SpiritHorse is “mainly about doing something good for the kids and being able to help them live a better life in the long run, and also have it at no charge to the parents,” Heather said.

The therapy uses the connection between horse and rider to break down emotional barriers, build physical strength and balance and address a wide range of mental and physical issues. These include autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.

According to the Texas SpiritHorse Web site, in the first five years of operation, the center helped 45 children speak their first words, helped 38 children walk for the first time and helped 30 children sit up for first time.

The original SpiritHorse also offers therapy for victims of abuse, at-risk youth and anger management. The founders of SpiritHorse of Virginia said they hope to expand into these areas eventually, but in the beginning, they will focus on people with mental or physical disabilities.

Therapy services are open to disabled people of all ages. To qualify, there is an application that must be filled out with recommendations from the person’s doctors.

“It doesn’t matter if they make a million dollars a year or $10,000 a year — it’s free for everybody,” Heather said.

Offering free therapy was part of the licensing agreement with SpiritHorse, and it “is something we feel very strongly about,” Shelly Thomas said.

“It’s hard enough in these economic times,” especially for people with medical problems, Thomas said. “We don’t need to add a burden to them for a therapy that is showing great results but is not covered by insurance.”

Because of this, the center will rely on donations, grants and corporate sponsorships, Thomas said. Groups already have helped by donating riding equipment and wood to build ramps the children will use to reach the saddle.

One requirement of the program for children is that a parent or caregiver must stay and participate in the lesson.

“The kids feel much safer with somebody that they’re used to, instead of just an instructor,” Heather said. “Plus, I think it would help the parents to see their child progress. They have to be here to share the experience.”

During the one-hour weekly private therapy sessions, the person receiving the therapy will help with grooming and saddling the horse “to get them connected with the animal,” Thomas said. The person then will lead the horse, “all with the instructor’s supervision and help,” she said, and go up the ramp to climb on the horse’s back.

The SpiritHorse program has 77 gradual steps, and the first 60 can take several years to complete, Thomas said.

“I can’t wait to get it going here so people can benefit from it, because I saw the results with my own eyes out there (in Texas), and it’s just phenomenal,” Thomas said.

Heather and her mother recently traveled to SpiritHorse in Texas for two weeks of training to become certified instructors. They also had to get certified online through the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA).

“It was a very intense two weeks,” Heather said of their trip, which involved practical training as well as a written exam. She and her mother worked with horses and did mock therapy sessions before getting to work with children.

“I thought it was amazing, the bond between the child and the horse,” Heather said. “It was probably the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in my life, to work with those kids and see the progress they made.”

While they were in Corinth, they saw a presentation from the University of North Texas, which recently did a study of children with autism at the center. The university gave the Thomases a copy of the SpiritHorse language curriculum, which was created to go along with the therapeutic riding program and help children learn to speak, Thomas said.

Heather said she “definitely” wants her career to be in therapeutic riding.

“I just want to be able to get the kids to be able to live a more functioning, more manageable life” and “to see the kids enjoy the horses as much as I do,” Heather said.

SpiritHorse of Virginia Inc. is located at 8767 Snow Creek Road, Penhook. From Kings Mountain Road in Henry County, turn right on Figsboro Road. Figsboro turns into Snow Creek Road after it crosses the Franklin County line, and the farm is a little more than eight miles north of the border.

For more information, call the farm at (540) 765-2469 or e-mail