A new therapeutic riding center is opening its barns to children and adults with special needs.

“We have been blessed with a large healthy family and we just want to give back,” said Bobby Oliver referring to the new endeavor he and his wife, Emily, are starting up.

Therapeutic riding, also known as equine-assisted activities, allows children with disabilities not only learn to ride horses but also to acquire balance, coordination, muscle tone and even improved verbal skills, according to Emily.

Campfire Creek Therapeutic Riding Center is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. The Olivers plan to begin operations in mid-September.

“The therapy has been known to work wonders with cerebral palsy victims with high muscle tone as well as those with Down syndrome whose muscle tone is loose and limp and without a lot of strength,” Emily said. “We do warmup exercises by having the riders to reach as far forward as they can to pet the horse’s neck and then to reach around behind them to pet the horse on the back side.”

Part of the therapy involves learning how to properly groom the horse, how to blanket the horse and how to cinch the saddle, she said.

Bobby and Emily explain that horses have a gait or stride that is most similar to that of humans, and just being in the saddle on a horse and being led around inside a round pen can have a great impact toward building the rider’s coordination and muscle tone.

“Horses are also used by physical therapists and other health professionals in what is known as ‘hippo therapy.’ The focus is not on developing horse skills but instead using the horse as a tool by the health professional to give therapy. It is very effective for children with autism, Asperger syndrome - which is very similar to autism - and a lot of other dysfunction.”

Emily said she became involved in therapeutic riding because of a close friend, Shirley Wills, who has a program in Waco.

“She asked me to come and bring my daughter, Kerrah, to help a little boy in speech development,” Emily said. “While we were there I learned what a benefit the program was to disabled children and when I saw the equipment and land space she had, I begin to think, ‘I can do this.”

Emily returned home and began sharing her dream with her husband, who was reluctant at first.

“But one afternoon some time later, I had an opportunity to spend a long time visiting with another fireman who works 24-hour shifts with the Dallas Fire Department and then goes home to relieve his wife from her duties of caring for their totally disabled child and he totally gives himself to that child for the next 48 hours - and then goes back to work for another 24 hours,” Bobby said. “He didn’t whine or complain or say ‘woe is me.’ He seemed glad to do it. After that conversation, I began to feel ashamed of myself because I’ve had it pretty good throughout life. From then on I was on board with Emily to do this.”

There are many benefits to a therapeutic riding program, Emily said.

“No matter how disabled a child might be, he or she can see quite an improvement in their strength and coordination after just a few riding sessions,” she said. “They learn to overcome fear. They have improved self-esteem and it is also good for the parents because up to that point, they had never been able to experience the pride of seeing their child excel in something - like hitting a home run or score a winning bucket -- but they can stand beside the round pen and watch their severely handicapped child have some little victories, and they have just as much joy and pride in that precious child as a parent who has a normal, healthy child in sports.”

The Olivers said they have known of instances where a child in the early stages of autism has overcome most of his or her autistic tendencies because of riding therapy.

“There is still a lot about autism the medical profession doesn’t know. What we do know is that it is on the rise nationally. Forty or 50 years ago, only about one in 1,000 children were autistic, but today it is something like one in 160,” Emily said. “One thing we’ve learned about autistic children is that they do much better in the round pen on a horse if they go counter-clockwise. There is just something about it that lends itself to their motor skills, whereas going clockwise confuses them.

“I know of one autistic child who spoke his first word while he was on a horse during riding therapy,” she said.

According to the Olivers, there is no handicap too severe to prohibit a participant from gaining benefits from equine-assisted activities. They cited an example of a 7-year-old boy, Steven, who is a student at their friend’s therapeutic riding program. They said he is almost blind, has an extremely severe case of cerebral palsy and had undergone hip surgery. Special pillows had to be placed on the saddle to keep him from falling forward and hitting his head.

“A vital part of the therapy is to have the student walk to the horse as much as possible,” Emily said. “My friend was able to make Steven stand up and then she had to assist him with every step in order to get him to the horse. After she helped him up on the horse, he was able to sit up straight because his upper torso was fairly strong.

“Shirley told me that after Steven was mounted, he was not to be assisted by the horse handlers because, out of reflex, he would lean toward them. He was forced to sit on his own, which was a valuable part of the therapy, but he had to be prodded to sit up straight rather than to slump,” she said. “After a lot of struggle, he managed to sit up straight and then looked around at his parents as if to ask, ‘How am I doing?’ They were so thrilled - it was as if he had hit a baseball out of the park.”

The Olivers said they expect serve all ages, even adults who have severe disabilities, and note their students don’t have to have physical handicaps.

“We want to eventually work with children who have emotional problems, perhaps due to abuse,” Emily said. “We will work with kids with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyper-activity disorder.”

The Olivers plan to build a large covered arena and barn, with a section at one end designed as a studio for Emily to give art lessons.

“I want to attach a big covered sitting area onto the barn. That way, the parents can sit out there and relax and visit while their children are riding,” Bobby said. “I think this will mean so much to couples with handicapped kids just to have a break once in awhile from the pressure of taking care of them. Then about once a month, we want to have all the parents and children out for a wiener roast around a campfire.

“We’re not just about riding therapy, we want to meet the needs of the entire family,” he said. “This will be a family-oriented program.”

“We want everyone to know that there are very strict guidelines in operating a program like this,” Emily said. “We have already gone through intense training for this and have been tested. Even though we have been around horses all our lives, we have to take some riding lessons, ourselves. We will be required to take at least 20 hours of continuing education in order to maintain our licensing through the North American Riding For the Handicapped Association. We must practice the utmost in safety standards.”

“God has been very good to our family,” Bobby said. “We have been healthy and happy and have had a good life. It is time for us to give back to others.”

“Since this is a nonprofit organization, we will always be able to use lots of volunteers,” she said. “We need side-walkers, people to maintain and groom the animals, people who will help clean the stalls and even grant-writers. You don’t even have to like horses to enjoy being involved.”

Campfire Creek Therapeutic Riding Center is located at 767 Bethel Road, Waxahachie. Call (972) 937-7265.

E-mail Paul at paul.gaunt@waxahachiedailylight.com