At Windwalkers, bonds with horses prove therapeutic for clients
June 24, 2014
CARBONDALE — Finn and Furry are friends who spend time together, take care of each other and understand one another.
Finn Keleher is a 10-year-old boy from Carbondale, who has been dealing with some emotional problems, and "Furry" is a 25-year-old Cob pony with a white coat who helps Finn in his therapy through the WindWalkers program in Carbondale. (The horse's real name is Nick, but Finn started calling him Furry because of his thick coat during the winter.)
WindWalkers Equine Assisted Learning & Therapeutic Center is a nonprofit organization that has been around for nine years and offers therapeutic riding sessions, horsemanship lessons, group programming and equine-assisted counseling to those with both physical and mental disabilities or issues.
"A lot of our clients are undiagnosed — their challenge is evident, but the diagnosis might not be so evident, especially with cognitive, neurological or psychological issues," said Chris Kelly, WindWalkers' executive director.
After an initial consultation in which a potential client can visit the facility at Missouri Heights, meet the horses and decide if the program is right for them, the client is matched with a horse and a program with goals tailored for individual needs. Clients may be dealing with anything from autism to cerebral palsy and anger management — but the common denominator in the equine therapy is essentially the same. Being on a horse is just plain fun.
"Riding a horse gives you a sense of freedom and a sense of confidence," Kelly said. "If you can control where the horse goes, it gives you a sense of empowerment. The therapy is something they look forward to and enjoy."
According to WindWalkers, horses are very social, forming dynamic herds and can become like people in your life. They become teachers by demonstrating healthy communication, understanding, patience and resilience with the clients.
"Working with horses allows us to practice these skills right away in an emotionally safe environment," the WindWalker brochure states. "Horses become our partners, providing emotional support and healing as we learn how to build relationships with them. Through this relationship, clients are able to explore and understand how they interact with others in their lives. Horses are honest and nonjudgmental."
Beth Gusick of Basalt has been an instructor at WindWalkers since 2008 and has been working with Finn and Furry for the past three years. WindWalkers offers both summer and winter programs and the summer program has just started.
On this day, Gusick leads Finn and Furry on a walk around the facility, before going into the arena for their one-hour session.
The boy and pony do a "two-point trot" around some cones, before practicing a "posting trot" in which the rider moves with the rhythm of the horse.
"These horses know they're carrying special cargo," Kelly said. "They go through a training and evaluation period of about 60 days. And whenever you're on top, they're aware of it. They know there is something special there and not to do anything stupid."
According to Finn, the sessions can be fun and sometimes feel like work.
"Usually every week it's like boring, exciting, boring, exciting," Finn said. "But it feels so good to be back on a horse. I've missed it. It feels really good to be back on top of Furry."
Taking a break from trotting, Finn decides to shoot some hoops with a brown, furry ball into a freestanding basketball net. Holding Furry's reins in one hand, he shoots the ball with the other and makes the shot perfectly twice from 15 feet away.
"Furry has to trust Finn that nothing bad is going to happen to him with the ball," Gusick explained. "And Finn has to trust Furry that he won't ruin his shot."
Along with the one-on-one therapeutic riding sessions, WindWalkers also offers horsemanship riding lessons, small group programs and equine-assisted counseling. Family members are also encouraged to participate in the program and be involved.
As a non-profit organization, WindWalkers is currently trying to raise $10,000 for a challenge match from the KNU Foundation to help buy hay and grain for the horses, put new shoes on them, purchase new tack, replace worn-out blankets and halters, and do upkeep on the ranch buildings and grounds.
For more information about WindWalkers, to volunteer or to make a donation, call (970) 963-2909 or visit windwalkerstrc.org.