Tunnelton horses used in therapy
by Jeff Himler, Blairsville Dispatch, September 20, 2002
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Dylan McGrath's therapist, "Bambi," looks forward to her
weekly half-hour workout with the four-year-old boy from
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
"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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
But, she noted, the field still is relatively new here in
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
The Hartmans learned about horseback therapy 10 years ago when
the director of the then Pennsylvania Council for Therapeutic
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
Noted Cindy, "There were no accredited (therapy) programs in
Indiana or Armstrong counties and there still are no programs
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
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
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
"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
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (724)
459-6100, ext. 13.