If you have children, grandkids, nieces, nephews or other kids in your life, imagine how you’d feel if they received a “special needs” diagnosis. Imagine feeling suddenly isolated, confused and scared. You may wonder, “What will his or her life be like? What will progress look like?”

Four-year-old Grace is one of those kids. “As Grace got older, we started to see a regression in her milestones,” her mother explained. “She became non-verbal, lost some motor functions, and we were told she had a genetic neurological disorder. It was just devastating.”

I founded Chasing Rainbows Therapeutic Equine Facility in central Pennsylvania for people like Grace and her family — to give kids and adults a way to spend time with horses, and to experience the comfort these amazing creatures can provide. The people who come to our facility have a range of diagnoses — including autism spectrum disorders, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, stroke, developmental delay, sensory processing disorder, hearing impairment, ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and schizophrenia.

Chasing Rainbows participates each year in the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community. If you like what you learn about our organization, consider showing your support by joining us at the Harrisburg, PA walk.

Equine Therapy: Getting Stronger Together

At Chasing Rainbows, where I am executive director, we meet many of our new families during their transitional stage of anxiety soon after a medical or psychological diagnosis. But it is just a stage, and we are here to remind them that they aren’t alone. I am usually the one to respond to these first phone calls and emails.

Grace with Andrea Gibson on horse

When Grace started riding with us at age 2, she was only strong enough to ride our miniature horse for 30 minutes, and required assistance to support her upper body.

“When I called Chasing Rainbows, I was afraid — afraid Grace wouldn’t be able to do much because of her low muscle tone, afraid she would fall off the horses, afraid she might be allergic to the horses,” Grace’s mom recalled. “But you were so motivating, telling me that we would be welcome to visit, and that you would work something out. I hung up the phone and felt so much better because I had found a support system.”

Grace is one of more than 100 riders, ages 2 to 60+, we serve at Chasing Rainbows each year. There are many benefits to therapeutic riding for people like Grace.

For example, riding a horse improves a person’s strength and balance, because the horse’s three-dimensional movement creates movement in the rider that mimics the motion of the human stride.

Emotionally, a horse’s natural sensitivity is often calming. Because communication between rider and horse is non-verbal, many riders experience improved self-esteem, relational and communication skills. Cognitive skills, such as following directions and putting things into a sequence, can also improve as a natural extension of learning to ride a horse.

The Chasing Rainbows farm also gives parents of children with special needs a stronger sense of hope and community.

Horses at the Chasing Rainbows farm

Three of our therapeutic horses enjoying some “down time” at the Chasing Rainbows farm.

Special Needs Riders: Community Support Is Key

I fell in love with horses at a young age, began riding regularly in high school, and completed a minor in Equestrian Studies from Houghton College. After graduation, I traveled to Namibia, in southern Africa, and spent six months using horses while working with a children’s home for AIDS orphans. That’s where my eyes were really opened to the magic of the equines, as I witnessed the astounding emotional and physical benefits to the children.

Upon my return, I decided that I wanted to pursue therapeutic riding, and returned to school to earn a Master’s degree in non-profit management from Clark University, as well as my therapeutic riding instructor certification. As a central Pennsylvania native, I wanted to return to offer this service to my home community, and I opened Chasing Rainbows in 2011.

“Community” is a key word. At Chasing Rainbows, we now depend on more than 50 volunteers, ages 14 to 70+. These volunteers donate over 1,500 total hours every year. Their work is supplemented by our generous donors, who ensure that no special-needs rider is turned away because of an inability to pay.

Simply put, raising a child with disabilities can be a drain on a family’s finances, even with health insurance. There may be increased medical expenses, structural changes that need to be made to a home so that it is livable, higher grocery bills due to dietary restrictions, and other additional costs. For many families we serve, it just wouldn’t be possible without community financial support to pay for the type of therapeutic program we offer.

Grace on a therapy horse

Here is Grace today, during a weekly one-hour therapeutic riding session. Riding without a traditional saddle allows her to receive the maximum physical benefit from the motion of the horse, helping to further strengthen her core muscles.

Our goal is to make sure that cost is never an obstacle to a family that wants to pursue equine therapy with Chasing Rainbows. That’s why support from individual donors, as well as through events like the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community in Harrisburg, is so important.

If you’d like to be part of the Chasing Rainbows community, a good place to start is our website, which also includes information on how to apply for or help support our scholarship program. Tax-deductible donations can be made on our website, through the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community, or mailed to 5621 River Rd., Harrisburg, PA 17110. If you are interested in volunteering, email me at info@chasingrainbow.org.

Achieving the Unthinkable

Let’s give Grace’s mom the final word:

“Of all of the activities Grace is in, I’ve seen the most improvement with horseback riding. The number one improvement is her strength. She can sit up on her own, control her muscles, and her trunk supports her. Now she’s trying to stand up on her own. That was unthinkable before. The best part? She doesn’t even realize she’s in therapy.”