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EP organization gives horseback therapy to disabled locals
By Philip Lasseigne; East Peoria Times-Courier; Apr 20, 2011
East Peoria, Ill. — Andrew Marsh, a 22-year-old from Washington, started horseback riding at an earlier age than most.
When he was 2-years-old, Marsh began riding horses regularly, but for a different reason than most.
Born with Joubert Syndrome, a disorder characterized by decreased muscle tone and the inability to coordinate muscle movements, Marsh mounts a horse each week not just as a form of recreation, but for therapy.
“When we first started..., he could not sit up, and it strengthened a lot of his muscles,” Betty Jones, Marsh’s grandmother, said. “When we started him, we were looking for something to make him happy because he was not a happy baby.”
Fast forward 20 years and Marsh is able to sit up and walk, thanks to the services of Central Illinois Riding Therapy, a non-profit organization in East Peoria that assists both children and adults in the region that have physical, mental or emotional disabilities.
“This is not like regular therapy,” said Judy Kruse, executive director at CIRT, said. “This is different and something we look forward to.
Marsh added that the program has made a difference in her grandson’s life.
“There’s been a lot of milestones with that boy,” she said. “Now that I see him... I take (all he can do) for granted. It took a lot to get him here.”
Background and benefits
Initially founded in 1983, CIRT began with six riders and several loaned horses with the same mission it carries today: providing therapy for those with disabilities.
Twenty-eight years later, CIRT is still running, operating under accreditation from the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association with 10 donated or leased horses, more than 100 volunteers and 86 riders between the ages of 2 and 67 enrolled in the program. CIRT operates from April to November each year, providing weekly lessons to riders four days each week.
Kruse said the program’s popularity speaks for itself.
“Word of mouth from parents is the biggest seller we’ve had,” she said. “People that have been here come back.”
Although the idea of horseback riding as therapy sounds unorthodox, there is a reason that riders with physical and mental disabilities keep returning.
“A horse walks closer to a human than any other machine or anything else, so when a rider rides, even if they don’t have use of their legs, their upper body gets the correct motion... their upper body muscles get muscle memory in the right way,” Kruse said.
“If the legs are a problem, the movement of the horse and the movement of the body helps relax the muscles and inner-thigh muscle,” she added.
Madonna Lipp, whose daughter, Samantha, has cerebral palsy, said the muscular development is one of the reasons her daughter goes to CIRT for therapy.
“It’s helping to strengthen her core,” Madonna said.
In addition to those with physical disabilities, the riding therapy also helps riders with mental and emotional issues.
“Horses react to your body language, your tenseness and that sort of thing,” Kruse said. “With that, we teach kids and adults that they need to relax... and when they follow instructions, they get the immediate reward because the horse responds,” Kruse said.
“It’s quite an ego boost for kids and adults who have low self esteem because of their disabilities. When you can control a 1,000 pound animal, that’s pretty exciting,” she added.
In addition to being therapeutic, the weekly horseback riding experience gives the riders a new activity.
“(Riding therapy programs) gives them a sport that they can do,” Jenna Walker, a program coordinator at CIRT, said. “This is their sport because we also do horse shows to showcase them. It puts everyone on the same playing field.”
Madonna Lipp agreed.
“(Samantha) just enjoys it,” she said. “It’s just nice to see that she’s able to participate in an activity that she enjoys— anything to help her.”
Events and volunteering
The CIRT experience does not just stop with the weekly therapy to help its riders. It also allows its participants to take part in annual horse shows and other events.
Through CIRT, riders have been able to compete in state, county, 4-H and charity shows throughout Illinois. CIRT has even had riders participate in the Special Olympics.
“Everyone can participate (in those events),” Kruse said.
The East Peoria organization even hosts their own horse-related events as fundraisers. May 14 marks CIRT’s annual horse show, and it will also host a polo event on Aug. 20. All of the money raised from those events goes directly to CIRT, which relies on these funds and donations to stay running.
Volunteers are also relied upon. CIRT is currently accepting volunteers for the season.
“People step up (to support CIRT) when things are tough for everybody,” Kruse said. “They realize how tough it is for families who have people with disabilities in the family because your bills are higher and your expenses are a lot more.
Kruse, who has been involved with CIRT since the beginning, said she receives a great deal of satisfaction from being a part of the program.
“It’s a job that you never get disappointed in,” she said.
For more information about CIRT or to volunteer, visit their website at www.cirt.info.