Changing Lives One Stride at a Time

American Quarter Horses make a difference every day at this equine-assisted activities and therapies program.

The American Quarter Horse Association

Therapist Vera Liljistrand, MS-SLP and patient Wade West share a moment as Wade repeats target speech sounds during his speech therapy session on Dooleys Blue Lake. Casey West provides the horse handling for “Dooley,” a former team roping horse. (Credit: Andrea Caudill)

Thirty-nine years ago, at the AQHA convention, a college student stood up and gave a presentation. In it, the University of New Mexico speech pathology undergraduate described how utilizing an American Quarter Horse as a therapeutic tool had profoundly helped her disabled patient. Ruth Dismuke-Blakely was given a research grant that snowballed into the program she runs today.

Ruth, a third-generation horsewoman raised in AQHA’s programs, owns and runs Skyline Therapy Services just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. The program, the longest-running full-time therapy program in the United States, serves almost 200 patients and is entirely self-supported. It employs 21, a mix of physical, occupational and speech therapists, as well as professional horse handlers.

Equine-assisted speech-language therapy was a calling for Ruth, and one for which she has received world-wide recognition. But it is the smallest of miracles that she describes as her favorite moments. She smiles, her eyes misting a little, as she recalls one patient, profoundly affected by cerebral palsy, who with treatment gained enough control of his body to use an “eye gaze” computer, which tracks eye movements and allowed him to “click” on phrases and thus “speak” for the first time.

“His father was in the back of the room,” Ruth remembers. “The first thing he did was click on ‘Hi Dad, I love you!’ The next thing he clicked on was ‘I want to ride my horse.’ ”

An AQHA director and chairperson of the American Quarter Horse Foundation Council, Ruth is assisting AQHA and sharing her expertise in the field of equine-assisted activities and therapies. The Foundation’s goal is to foster educational opportunities for future horse industry professionals wishing to pursue a career in the field, while ensuring the highest level of programs and services are provided to special-needs individuals.

The Foundation, through its America’s Horse Cares program, awards approximately $75,000 annually to qualified EAAT facilities. It has funded more than 100 facilities since 2002, with total funding in excess of $575,000.

Ruth’s love of horses and passion for speech pathology runs in the family. Daughter Neita is an active AQHA show competitor who also went to school to be a speech pathologist. She is one of just more than 1,200 recipients since 1976 to earn an AQHA scholarship, and she now works at Skyline as a licensed speech pathologist. Ruth’s youngest daughter, Eva, is attending graduate school in speech pathology. The American Quarter Horse Foundation gives approximately $350,000 annually to students who earn the right based on academic achievement, financial need and American Quarter Horse involvement, as well as leadership and communication skills.

“Historically, our Quarter Horses were our working partners – they helped with cattle, they pulled our buggies – they were truly our working partners in daily life,” Ruth says. “Then they morphed into a recreational partner. Now, in medicine, they become our working partner again. Together, these horses and these therapists are creating a huge change in quality of life and function for a group of people who otherwise would be much more restricted in what they’re able to do. And at the same time, inherently overlaid, is the glory of the horse: that wonderful interaction with these creatures that have kept us in this industry in the first place.”

The American Quarter Horse Foundation is dedicated to advancing the American Quarter Horse and the partnership it shares with humans. The Foundation's mission is to support equine research, industry scholarships, equine-assisted therapies and the preservation of the Quarter Horse's history. To learn more or to donate, visit www.aqha.com/foundation.