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Making strides with equine therapy

It’s not every day you see a horse in the school gym, but that’s exactly what greeted Fox River Middle School students last week.

The kids carefully walked past Del Rio, the large chestnut-colored Quarter horse, as they took their seats in the bleachers.

Del Rio eyeballed the students, bellowing an occasional complaint about the warm temperature. He was used to being outside, demonstrated by his almost fluffy-looking coat, and the heat made him a bit uncomfortable, explained Denise Murphy, director of operations for Willow Creek Ranch, Inc. Therapeutic Riding Center, a non-profit organization located in the Waterford/Burlington area.

Murphy and Willow Creek Ranch owner Jennifer Pape talked to students about how equine therapy helps children and adults with disabilities, including some of their classmates.

Pape introduced “Del” to the students while Murphy walked him around, keeping him busy during the presentation.

Willow Creek Ranch began its operations in June, she said. Pape works as a therapist at Lakeview Specialty Hospital in Waterford. “I have seen the progress people make during their therapies,” she said, adding that she wants to help people continue strengthening and stimulating their bodies even when the regular therapy is completed.

Willow Creek allows her to combine her therapy skills with her love for horses, she said.

Willow Creek is a member of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA), and Pape spent eight months training to become a certified instructor.

“It’s more than just putting a child on a horse,” she said.

Therapeutic riding helps children and adults with a variety of disabilities and conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder, Autism, Traumatic Brain Injuries, Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy and others. The games and activities riders do on a horse help them improve motor skills, self-esteem, concentration and problem-solving abilities.

The rhythmic movement of the horse stimulates the riders’ bodies, helping improve their muscle tone, strength, balance and head and trunk control.

“Sometimes we have the kids sitting on the horse backwards,” Pape said.

Two children who were non-verbal and autistic said their first words within three weeks of starting the program, giving their horses short verbal commands, Pape said.

That’s the miracle of therapeutic riding, and the foundation of Willow Creek’s motto, “Where life reins…miracles happen,” she said.

Therapeutic riding also has cognitive benefits, helping a rider develop his or her atten-tion, memory, spatial orientation and awareness of self and others.

“For some of the kids, it may be difficult to sequence things, to follow directions,” Pape said.

Behavioral benefits include decreased anxiety, depression, mood swings and impulsivity.

The program runs with numerous volunteers – often four to five for each rider, she said.

The riders aren’t the only ones to benefit from the program either, she said.

The volunteers are rewarded as well, being around the horses, being part of a team and developing relationships with each other and with the riders.

Pape introduced Fox River Middle School student Crystal Schmittinger, 13. Crystal has Cerebral Palsy and is wheelchair bound most of the time. She rides at the ranch every Saturday – Del is her assigned horse – and she clearly responds to him with a big smile and a “thumbs up.”

Crystal demonstrated therapeutic riding for her classmates with the help of Pape, Murphy, Chris Biondich – her mom, Andrea Kebbekus – her teacher, and fellow FRMS student and volunteer Katlyn Syrett.

Crystal was moved from her wheelchair to Del’s back, laying flat and facing his rear. With encouragement from those around her, she and Del set off around the gym. Pape explained that after awhile, Crystal’s tight muscles would start to relax.

She asked Crystal how it was going. Crystal responded with her subtle “thumbs up” once again.

Classes at Willow Creek are only held on Saturdays at this time, but Pape and Murphy hope to do more with the program on a full-time basis, once an indoor arena is built. They are currently using a donated facility for indoor classes.

There is a waiting list of 10 students for the program. Pape said they need more volunteers to help serve those students as well.

Volunteers are also needed for a variety of tasks from light stable duties to horse handling, fundraising, recruiting, website management, photography, event planning and more.

Willow Creek Ranch, Inc., located at 2623 Maple Road, Burlington, is a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization that relies on donations and scholarship funding and support from the community to keep the cost of lessons at a minimal fee.


I'm a writer, editor, photographer and artist living in rural Southeastern Wisconsin. I grew up in Chicago, made my way to the deep woods of Northern Minnesota and then landed here among the cornfields and cows. It's quite simply my happy place.

One thought on “Making strides with equine therapy

  1. Hi! My name Elaine and I wanted to say that I think what you’re doing is awesome! I saw this article in the paper, but part of it was torn so I didn’t get to read all of it. Then I found it here! I was drawn to it for two reasons; 1) I LOVE horses, and 2) My younger brother is autistic. I’m planning on showing this to my parents and maybe this can help him!I’m also interested in being a vounteer (but, again, I need to discuss it with my parents.) I’ll give you a call sometime! Keep up the good work and I’ll be praying for your ministry! Elaine


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