By Natalie Townsend
Published in The Williamson County Sun August 24, 2014
An uncharacteristic silence descended August 6 on the Ride On Center for Kids arena during a staff-training event. Upon learning of a young client’s death, the riders hung their heads while dutifully executing training maneuvers, their slanted helmets shading red-rimmed eyes. The procession of horses left a trail of tears in its wake.
Nancy O’Meara Krenek, chief executive officer of R.O.C.K., had been preparing to leave for a conference in Nashville. Once she heard the news, however, she rushed to join her instructors, riding bareback into the arena.
“You won’t see many smiles today,” Ms. Krenek said, wiping her teary eyes.
“It’s probably good that they [the instructors] are riding.”
Hugging and massaging the necks of their horses, trainers sought comfort from the animals that are so integral to their clients’ therapy.
For more than a decade, R.O.C.K. has treated children and adults with emotional, cognitive and physical disabilities by putting them on horses. The center serves more than 200 clients a year, with each client receiving treatment unique to their needs. To achieve the best results, the horses and instructors are chosen for each client individually.
“The saying out here is that ‘kids who can’t walk learn how to walk, and kids who can’t talk learn how to talk,'” Ms. Krenek said.
Although the results at R.O.C.K. are seemingly miraculous, the success of the hippo therapy is grounded in science. The center recently published two research articles in professional journals showing the efficacy of equine-assisted therapy for veterans and people with autism.
“Veterans get reconnected with families and have less anxiety after they’ve done our program,” Ms. Krenek said.
Each client at R.O.C.K. has a different situation or disability. Even so, there is one thing they all share.
“They want to please the horse,” said Pat Dames, marketing director at R.O.C.K.
This desire is part of what makes the therapy so effective. For children with Attention Deficit Disorder, the horse responds better when the child is focused, motivating them to concentrate.
“When you focus, the horse knows,” Ms. Dames said. “It calms down and trusts you more.”
Those with speech impediments must direct the horse using verbal commands, encouraging children to speak clearly.
Clients improve their balance when they realize horses are uncomfortable with unsteady riders, and children with autism benefit from the horse’s rhythm, sparking interaction between left and right sides of the brain.
“I’ve had kids that give you no eye contact and won’t talk to you at all, and about halfway through the lesson on the horse, they’ll start singing,” Ms. Krenek said.
Equine-assisted therapy has additional benefits for those with physical disabilities and cognitive disabilities, such as multiple sclerosis, including better core strength.
Muscle gain is a plus for those that have difficulty walking. Hippo therapy is especially beneficial for this constituency because the horse’s side-to-side motion mimics walking through space, which is impossible to recreate with therapy on a treadmill.
Most importantly, the difference between other types of therapy and hippo therapy is that people want to come.
“If you’re going to do therapy in a traditional, sterile environment, it’s sometimes hard for kids,” Ms. Dames said. “It’s not comfortable and going through the hospital is scary. But you come here, and this is fun. They don’t think of it as therapy.”
R.O.C.K. received $20,000 this year from Seeds of Strength to help pay for clients’ tuition.
“I love Seeds of Strength and the way women are empowered to give in our community,” Ms. Krenek said. “We are so honored that individual women voted for our organization to give us that money.”
The donation from Seeds of Strength will help R.O.C.K. meet the center’s high demand.
“We really don’t want anyone to be turned away because of cost,” Ms. Dames said.
One of R.O.C.K.’s most obvious strengths is the strong relationships formed between volunteers, instructors and clients.
Although the death of their client will surely linger in the minds of R.O.C.K. instructors and volunteers, they will respect her memory by continuing to serve others in need.
With an aching heart but an unwavering mission, they will ride on.