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 Article of Interest - Extra Curricular Activities

Tunnelton horses used in therapy
by Jeff Himler, Blairsville Dispatch, September 20, 2002
For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit

Dylan McGrath's therapist, "Bambi," looks forward to her weekly half-hour workout with the four-year-old boy from Tarentum.

You won't hear any complaints from her, even when the youngster has her running in circles.

"She likes to work; she gets bored when she doesn't have anything to do," owner Cindy Hartman said of "Bambi," the nearly four-year-old offspring of a pony and a quarterhorse.

According to Hartman, the large pony is "a real nice size" for her owner's "Harts To Horses" horseback riding therapy program--which teams horses or ponies with young riders to help the youngsters overcome physical, mental or emotional challenges.

"She's not too small and she's not too big," said Hartman.

Bambi is one of four equines which work with special needs children at the Tunnelton farm Hartman runs with her husband, Eric.

Certified as an instructor with the Pennsylvania Council on Therapeutic Horsemanship, Cindy puts the horses and their young riders through their paces as she guides them around an oval arena next to the farm's stables.

Her husband walks alongside the horse, providing additional physical and moral support for the riders.

On a physical level, the couple explained, riding horseback stimulates a child's muscles--simultaneously relaxing and strengthening them.

According to the Hartmans, the motion of a horse's gait is similar to that of the human stride. So, a disabled client whose own ability to walk is limited may realize some of the benefits of that activity with movement translated from the horse's muscles to his own.

Said Cindy, "It really uses the muscles in your body. But the kids don't think of it as therapy, it's an activity to them."

Lisa McGrath reported her son, Dylan, has improved on several fronts since he began horseback riding sessions in March. That was shortly after he was diagnosed with hypotonic cerebral palsy, with the chief symptom of low muscle tone.

McGrath credited the horse therapy sessions with strengthening her son's limbs.

"He was a late walker, lagging behind the other kids," she said. But now, "I can see the muscle in the back of his leg."

"It's helping Dylan a lot," she said of the horseback therapy. "His balance is a lot better. He has better strides when he's walking, and he's getting speedier."

"He used to do some teetering when he was walking, but that has gone away," she said, adding that the boy's posture also has improved.

At the Hartmans' farm, she noted, Dylan has been able to jump and to walk a line toe-to-heel, activities he was disinclined to try at a more traditional occupational therapy program he attends.

Dylan also is enrolled in a pre-school program which allows him to mingle with more typically abled students.

"I think all the things in combination are starting to come together," his mother said.

Cindy Hartman gets input from her clients' other therapists, to see how their progress with the horses carries over into other situations. "If there's something the parents or the doctor are trying to achieve, we can sneak it in real easy" during the riding program, she said.

Beyond physical strides, Hartman said horseback therapy can have psychological benefits for young riders who form a bond with their mount.

"They get such a feeling of self-confidence," she said. "They're able to do something --riding a horse--that any little kid would want to do."

According to Lisa McGrath, her son "used to just whisper. Now he'll speak up."

While helping shy youngsters break out of their shells, Cindy Hartman noted horseback riding also can have a calming effect on unruly children.

She referred to occasions when the Hartman farm has hosted day camps for children with behavioral problems: "A kid can come in here just as cocky as can be. But when you put them on a horse, they're different--they're mellow."

Of the 11 youngsters the Hartmans have been working with, "Dylan is one of our best kids," Cindy said.

While simply completing several laps around the arena is enough for children who have fewer physical abilities, she noted Dylan is able to climb mounting blocks to get astride Bambi.

He has been learning the basics of controlling a horse. Cindy Hartman pointed out, "He knows how to steer," tugging on the horse's reins to go right or left.

During each therapy session, he also stops the pony at several stations throughout the arena. There, the Hartmans have him play games--tossing small balls into a basketball hoop or placing differently colored rings over a pole.

The games reinforce his coordination as well as his counting skills and color identification.

At some of the stations, the boy demonstrates his increasing physical strength, standing up in his stirrups and stretching his arms above his head.

Hartman also teaches Dylan the responsibilities that come with riding a horse.

Before and after each riding session, she ask Dylan to brush Bambi 10 times with each of his hands--good motivation for him to use and, hopefully, build up his weaker left arm.

Horseback therapy is offered for all ages of riders. But Hartman noted she and her husband are sticking with young clients for a practical reason.

She noted the couple is unable to safely lift a disabled grown adult onto the back of a horse; some larger therapy programs have a hydraulic lift to perform the task.

Children of all ability levels are represented among the couple's current clients, who range in age from 3 to 13. In addition to cerebral palsy, some are afflicted with spina bifida or autism.

"Every kid is totally different," Cindy said of her quest for the ideal therapy plan for each. "It's all trial and error."

Said Eric Hartman, "I see signs of improvement in every kid."

Among them is an 11-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who has been riding the pony Honey, Bambi's mother.

Over time, he noted, the girl has gained better control of her limbs and has strengthened her back and neck, allowing her to keep her head erect.

The girl is one of many clients who are being treated for tight or spastic muscles.

Eric noted, "She's stiff when she gets on her pony." But, "After a half hour of riding, she's like a rag doll. It relaxes her."

The Hartmans also are working with an 11-year-old boy who is blind and normally is confined to a wheelchair--except when he's riding one of the couple's horses. The boy requires two side walkers to make sure he stays upright.

Still, Cindy Hartman said, "It's the coolest thing: He can't communicate, but he can ride a horse. What other activities are there out there for a kid with such severe challenges?"

"We see what capabilities each kid has, and we try to match them up with the right horse," Eric Hartman said.

On a practical level, his wife noted, "Kids with spastic cerebral palsy tend to have a scissors gait, so you can't put them on a fat horse" and expect their legs to suddenly bend into an unfamiliar position.

She also wants to pair a child and horse who have complementary temperaments. She said Dylan and Bambi are well teamed because "both of them have a two-second attention span."

Both of them must work together to stay focused on the tasks set for them in the arena.

Riding gear also must be suited to the child.

For those with less mobility in their limbs, a sturdier saddle is in order. But, when possible--as with Dylan--Cindy Hartman has her young clients ride on a simple blanket and foam pad, with a metal bar known as a "surcingle" to grab for support.

Riding without a saddle gives muscles a better workout, she said, noting the warmth from the horse's body also helps in loosening stiff legs.

Therapeutic horseback riding began as a discipline in the 1950s, inspired by equestrienne Liz Hartel, who won an Olympic silver medal despite being partially paralyzed.

According to Cindy Hartman, horseback riding has been an accepted therapy in eastern Pennsylvania for at least a decade.

But, she noted, the field still is relatively new here in western Pennsylvania.

According to Hartman, some medical doctors are beginning to recognize the benefits of horseback therapy and are recommending it to patients.

Another challenge for those in the field, she said, is to gain recognition from medical insurance providers--which would ease the financial burden on clients' families.

She is hoping more insurers will jump on the bandwagon and those who already honor horseback therapy bills will expand their list of accepted providers, as the demand for the service increases.

The Hartmans learned about horseback therapy 10 years ago when the director of the then Pennsylvania Council for Therapeutic Horseback Riding

was looking for new recruits for the organization.

He came to Crooked Creek Horse Park to speak to the Fort Armstrong Horseman's Association, of which the Hartmans were board members.

Noted Cindy, "There were no accredited (therapy) programs in Indiana or Armstrong counties and there still are no programs in Armstrong."

For Cindy, who earned her bachelor's degree in animal bioscience from Penn State, the decision to start a horse therapy program was an easy one.

Growing up in a family which operated a riding stable near Ford City, she noted, "I've been around horses since day one."

Hartman said she already was convinced of the beneficial influence horses can have on their riders--based on experiences shared with an uncle who "would always ride with me," despite several physical challenges resulting from birth defects.

Hartman noted her uncle has just one arm, which lacks an elbow. He also is deaf and can speak only a few words.

But, said his niece, "That never held him back. He would get up on a stool to get on a horse."

And, "He had his own language with horses. They seemed to just melt in his hands."

Cindy completed a three-part training program at Penn State to become a certified horse therapist instructor.

She noted the first phase was in written form, including detailed information on the types of symptoms and medications of potential therapy clients.

"There are a lot of medications that can cause you to be really sensitive to extreme heat or cold," she noted.

In the second phase of training, she completed hands-on exercises, attempting to match up a therapy client with an ideal horse helpmate.

Cindy and her husband relocated to their current 100-acre Tunnelton spread in time for the final phase of her accreditation: an on-site visit by officials from the state organization.

The move also allowed them to expand their stable of horses to seven, with four being used primarily for therapy work.

When she began using her horses in therapy work, Cindy didn't change her basic approach: training all her horses to be well-behaved.

"I've always been strict on discipline," she noted. "Horses are big animals, so they can't be out of control."

In addition, for the needs of the therapy program, Cindy desensitizes her horses and ponies, making sure they won't bolt or rear at the often unpredictable movements and squeals the young riders make.

One of her exercises is to repeatedly throw soft balls at the horses' heads until they no longer flinch at the missiles. As a result, the horse will remain steady if its young rider misses at the basketball station on the arena course.

To desensitize Bambi to noise, from a young age, Cindy blew air from a hair dryer at the pony, and even put a pet cat on her back.

"When she was big enough that I could ride her, I would lie on her and kick and throw things," she added. "You do anything you think could happen with the kids."

One factor the Hartmans have been unable to control is the weather. Due to the many days when temperatures soared beyond 90 degrees, a number of therapy sessions had to be cancelled this summer--out of concern for the effects of the heat on both horses and their riders.

But, concerns about the weather should be a thing of the past once the Hartmans have erected a roof over their arena. They're hoping to complete the project by November.

Cindy noted she is able to offer horseback therapy because of the flexible hours at her main bread-winning job: office manager at a horse clinic in Export.

Eric was laid off his job, giving him more time to tend the couple's stable of horses.

In the past, the Hartmans have explored their interest in horses by showing them and riding them competitively. But both agree the therapy program has been the most satisfying of all their equine endeavors.

"This has been the most rewarding part of it," said Cindy.

Jeff Himler can be reached at or (724) 459-6100, ext. 13.

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