More Than a Riding Lesson

Horses can often have healing powers.

A little girl runs through the playground playing tag with her friends. Eight years ago, Melanie Hudgens of Papillion, Nebraska, was only able to imagine that scene for her daughter.

Melanie’s daughter, Kelli, was born with Down syndrome. When Kelli was 4 years old, her physical therapists decided she no longer needed therapy because she was able to walk and move around her classroom.

Melanie disagreed.

“She could not run,” Melanie said. “She didn’t need to run in the school, but it would have been nice if she could have been outside running so that she could keep up with some of the other kids or at least participate in some of the activities that they were doing.”

Melanie’s mother had been volunteering at a therapeutic riding organization, and she suggested that Kelli try a horseback riding program. After finding a local program, Magic In Motion, Kelli found herself on a horse.

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“Within like three sessions of riding, she learned how to run,” Melanie said. “It was very exciting for us that she was able to do that.”

Since that first ride eight years ago, Kelli has continued her lessons and is now an independent rider at Heartland Equine Therapeutic Riding Academy. She has participated in several shows and events sponsored by HETRA.

Riding and showing horses isn’t just physical therapy for Kelli; it’s emotional therapy as well.

“She definitely has a kinship with horses,” Melanie said. “Younger children play with her really well and seek her friendship, but as children grow, they realize that Kelli has social limitations. The horses are not judgmental in that sense; therefore, Kelli has no social limitations with horses. It makes her really, really happy. It gives her something to look forward to every day of the week until we go to the next horseback riding lesson.”

Emotionally, the horses provide Kelli with something that no friend can give her, Melanie said. Horses will always be there for her to ride. Kelli truly believes in her heart that every horse she works with belongs to her.

Horseback riding also provides Kelli with the exercise she needs to stay strong. Children with Down syndrome tend to have less muscle tone than other kids, Melanie said. But riding has really helped develop and strengthen her trunk muscles.

Kelly is now 12 years old, and she is a six-year veteran of the HETRA program.

“There’s relief. There’s happiness. There’s joy,” Melanie said. “When you don’t know that you’re having a child with a disability – and then they’re born – their whole life flashes before your eyes, and it’s scary. So this gives us a sense of relief that there are therapeutic programs that provide wonderful activities. Therapeutic programs can be expensive but well worth it, and families must weigh the benefits and look for scholarships.”

Find out how you can help children like Kelli achieve their goals and dreams by donating to America’s Horse Cares, a program of the American Quarter Horse Foundation.

It's very important to be as informed as you possibly can when you're picking out your first horse. Let AQHA help with our Buying and Owning Your First Horse report.