Exciting Ways Equine Therapy Can Help A Child You Love
Surrounded by the delightful whinnies of “therapeutic” horses, I had the opportunity to interview Laurie Willmott, founder of Spirit Therapies.
How did you get started in Equine Therapy?
I’ve been around horses since I was three years old. They have always held a special place in my heart. In 1997, I was working as a hair dresser and realized how much I missed being around horses. While vacationing at my sister’s house, I was able to reconnect with them and I knew that it was time to bring horses back into my life. I started volunteering with an organization in Las Vegas three days a week and learned to do side walking.
I worked with this one little boy who was mentally challenged and non verbal. He was having a hard time steering the horse. We worked together for many lessons and we he finally got it, he looked back at me and held his thumbs up. I was moved by the connection that we had and realized if I could do that with one kid, I could do it for so many more. That experience changed my life. I came for the horses and the children stole my heart.
That sounds like an incredibly powerful experience. When did you make the decision to start Spirit?
When the organization I volunteered with closed down, I decided that working with equine therapy was my true calling. I left my job as a hairdresser to open Spirit Therapies. I got my first horse for $1 and started out with one student. But there were so many kids that needed our help.
We went through PATH certification (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) and EAGALA certification (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) and are now the only center in Las Vegas with both certifications. That means that we adhere to a high set of standards. All of our instructors are certified and extremely knowledgeable about the physical, emotional, and mental challenges that our clients face. They are extremely compassionate and must be trained quarterly in order to be in the arena with the kids.
Many of our horses were donated to us and quite a few of them were rescued. We now have seven horses for riding, two mini horses that can’t be ridden but allow kids to bond with the animals on the ground and get comfortable being around horses. We see between 35-40 students a week with three instructors and an amazing group of volunteers.
Thirty five to forty students a week is quite impressive! What do the kids get out of working with the horses?
Everyone is dealing with stress and animals can be extremely therapeutic. They never judge us. Even though they are huge, horses can be so kind and loving and understanding. They just stand with you in the moment. We work with quite a few children with autism and some that fall somewhere on the spectrum and we’ve seen such amazing growth in their learning, talking, and balance. The children’s behavior has improved and they become more social. I worked with one rider who was non verbal when we he came to us. Now he is able to say five or six words at a time and answer questions correctly. He is in school now and his mom swears that he learned to speak through the horse therapy.
We work with children with a variety of other physical or mental disabilities as well and the horseback riding improves their balance, coordination, range of motion, muscle strength and flexibility and so much more. Working with the kids, I’ve had to remove the word “no” from my vocabulary. We never say that a child can’t do something, it’s just a matter of when.
What an amazing contribution to the community. Are all of your clients able to pay for your services?
No. We know how difficult it is for families to pay for alternative therapies and we don’t ever want to turn away a child because of money. We try to keep our fees extremely low and are constantly looking for grants and for donations from within the community to help cover costs. We are currently accepting donations to fully enclose our indoor barn so that we can serve more clients. Our Pegasus program allows people to sponsor a child to go through our program free of charge. We also have a Hay Angel Account where people donate money to feed and care for the horses. They are expensive!
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I have no doubt. And I bet those horses have the prettiest manes around too!
(Laughing). Yes. I will always have an inner hairdresser. I keep their manes and tails looking beautiful.
How has Spirit Therapies impacted the community?
While we have had a huge impact, I feel like the question should be how has the community impacted Spirit Therapies. The amazing volunteers that lend their time, their talents, and their money have kept this organization going for over 15 years. I feel so blessed to be a part of this community and to be able to provide a much needed service to children with autism and a variety of other disabilities.
As of 2012, we also offer Horses Healing Heroes, a program to help veterans and active duty personnel deal with physical and mental challenges from serving our country.
Our Spirit Reins program is a summer camp for the mentally and physically challenged. The best part of it is that “typical” kids can be involved throughout the summer as Junior Leaders. They get to be a part of the program and give back. Giving to others truly helps us all grow.
Laurie, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. How can people learn more about your organization (and hopefully make a donation!)?
They can visit our website at http://www.spirittherapies.org to learn more about the programs we offer and the benefits that our clients receive. And they can donate there too. All donations are tax deductable and you get smiles, whinnies, and horse poop in return!
Any last thoughts?
Horses have the wings that we lack. Even though kids can’t fly, they can fly in their minds.
Sheryl Green is a freelance writer, motivational speaker, and passionate animal advocate. She serves as the Director of Communications and Cuddling for Hearts Alive Village, an animal rescue in Las Vegas. Sheryl is the proud mommy to a beagle/lab mix named Akasha and an avid admirer of people who use lint rollers. Visit Sheryl at www.sherylgreenspeaks.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was featured in Issue 59 – Top Strategies, Therapies and Treatments for Autism