Horseback Riding with a Higher Purpose

Therapist Vera Lijistrand and patient Wade West share a moment during his speech therapy session on Dooleys Blue Lake. Journal photo.

Therapist Vera Lijistrand and patient Wade West share a moment during his speech therapy session on Dooleys Blue Lake. Journal photo.

Thirty-five years ago, at the AQHA convention, a college student stood up and gave a presentation. In it, the University of New Mexico speech pathology undergraduate described how using an American Quarter Horseas a therapeutic? tool had profoundly helped her disabled patient. Ruth Dismuke-Blakely was given a research grantthat snowballed into the program she runs today.

Ruth, a third-generation horsewoman raised in AQHA’s programs, owns and runs Skyline Therapy Services just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. The program, the longest-running full-time therapy program in the United States, serves almost 200 patients and is entirely self-supported. It employs 21, a mix of physical, occupational and speech therapists, as well as professional horse handlers. Skyline Therapy Services was featured in the December 2012 issue of America?s Horse magazine, which goes exclusively to AQHA members.

Equine-assisted speech-language therapy was a calling for Ruth, and one for which she has received world-wide recognition. But it is the smallest of miraclesthat she describes as her favorite moments. She smiles, her eyes misting a little, as she recalls one patient, profoundly affected by cerebral palsy, who with treatment gained enough control of his body to use an ?eye gaze? computer, which tracks eye movements and allowed him to ?click? on phrases and thus ?speak? for the first time.

?His father was in the back of the room,? Ruth remembers. ?The first thing he did was click on ?Hi Dad, I love you!? The next thing he clicked on was ?I want to ride my horse.? ?

An AQHA director? and member of the American Quarter HOrse Foundation Council, Ruth is assisting AQHA in its alliance partnerships with the American Hippotherapy Association and the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship Internationaland sharing her expertise in the Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapy industry alliance task force. The task force is working on fostering collaboration and communication to allow more people access to the healing power of horsesand to improve the methods used to facilitate that.

The Foundation, through its America’s Horse Cares program, awards approximately $60,000 annually to qualified therapeutic riding facilities. It has funded more than 50 facilities since 2002, with total fundingin excess of $400,000.

?Historically, our Quarter Horseswere our working partners ? they helped with cattle, they pulled our buggies ? they were truly our working partners in daily life,? Ruth says. ?Then they morphed into are creational partner. Now, in medicine, they become our working partner again. Together, these horses and these therapists are creating a huge change in quality of lifeand function for a group of people who otherwise would be much more restricted in what they?re able to do.?

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