Horseback program empowers those with special needs

October 30, 2012 11:08:32 AM

Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]


The dusty gravel road winds through 60 acres of rolling pasture just off Highway 45 Alternate in West Point. It is a bucolic setting, hardly the place where one might imagine a battle being waged or a war being won.  


Three riders mount their steeds and step to the edge of the arena. In this moment, they are aware of nothing but the muscles moving beneath them, the chill autumn wind and the task at hand.  


Emily Sistrunk, 26, calls for a pair of gloves. Waverly Glenn, 6, asks for her pink jacket.  


Dakota, with 12-year-old Elizabeth Howard aboard, stands silently, shifting from foot to foot as he does his best to look as dignified as a horse can look when wearing a Kermit the Frog hat.  


Scattered around the cobweb-bedecked arena, parents squint at the screens of their cell phones and digital cameras, hoping they captured this moment for posterity.  


Not that they will ever forget. For Nancy and Carlos Sistrunk, of Starkville; Marca and Chris Glenn, of Columbus; and Brenda and Tommy Howard, also of Columbus; this metal-roofed horse ring has been the site of small victories and major miracles.  


Therapeutic horseback riding, they say, has changed their children's lives.  






Elizabeth Howard was 4-years-old the first time she sat on a horse. Born with cerebral palsy, she spent much of her time in a wheelchair.  


It was clear that she enjoyed her afternoons with the TEAM -- Therapeutic Equestrian Activity Member -- program, but for her mother, the benefit became obvious during a trip to the grocery store.  


Ordinarily, Elizabeth's muscles were stiff, her right hand so rigid that she was unable to grasp a toy or a baby cup. But on this day, when she was placed in the shopping cart, she instinctively reached down and grasped the cart with her right hand, balancing herself. She had only had a few horseback lessons, but the motion's origin was evident -- muscle memory had taken over, her once useless hand grasping the cart as she would have gripped her horse's reins.  


Her mother, Brenda Howard, broke down in tears. Her father, Tommy Howard, decided Elizabeth needed to ride more often.  


Now, Elizabeth rides several days a week at the facility that bears her name -- the Elizabeth A. Howard Center, located in West Point behind the Mossy Oak Outlet. The center, home to riders across the state with physical and emotional disabilities, was paid for with a $300,000 gift from the Howards.  


The therapeutic riding program, a collaboration between the Mississippi State University Extension Service 4-H, the Mississippi 4-H, the city of West Point and Clay County, has helped Elizabeth gain core strength and improve her head and muscle control, but it is more than that.  


"In Elizabeth's case, so much is out of her control," Brenda Howard says. "She depends on people for everything. Being able to control her horse is an empowering activity." 






Every activity has a purpose, even when it looks like pure fun, program coordinator Mary Shannon says. Today's Halloween costume party requires students to fulfill small tasks -- from navigating a weaving path to throwing a basketball and casting a fishing line while on horseback -- to earn candy.  


About 50 riders trot through the arena each year, with their parents paying $150 per fall and spring semester. They are admitted after a lengthy application process, and a framework of individualized goals and objectives is developed. Riders generally attend one 45-minute session per week, but private lessons are available for those who want to ride more often.  


It goes far beyond "just throwing them on a horse," Shannon says. It's about using targeted exercises to improve strength and coordination, foster confidence and self-esteem and teach horsemanship and social skills.  


It's about improving their quality of life and preparing them to live as independently as possible. 


Shannon has seen her share of miracles in the 12 years she has led the program. She remembers the autistic girl who spontaneously grabbed her horse's muzzle and kissed him. Before that, she seldom made eye contact and rarely interacted with animals.  


She remembers how Emily Sistrunk, who lives with Down syndrome, was so terrified of horses that she couldn't keep her hands from shaking. On this sunny Monday afternoon, Emily is sitting astride her horse, Bob, walking him through his paces while she balances a miniature plastic pumpkin on an oversized soup spoon. Her hands are steady. She is grinning broadly.  


Shannon remembers how Waverly Glenn, born with spina bifida, was also afraid of horses when she arrived. She "screamed bloody murder" during her first class, but after her father came to stand beside her, she settled down. And since then, she's fallen in love with her gentle Welsh pony, Toby.  


There is a sense of empowerment that comes from bonding with a 900-pound animal, learning how to make it respond, Shannon says. It is an experience riders carry with them when they leave the arena. 


"So many other people can participate in physical activities," Shannon says. "This gives them something they do that is their own." 


It gives something to the volunteers also -- a sense of purpose. 


Hannah Miller, 20, is studying biology and pre-med at Mississippi State. She began volunteering with her sister when she was in high school, and she enjoyed it so much, she decided to become certified.  


She has seen, first-hand, how riding gives her students confidence. She can't help but be proud of them when she thinks of how far they have come.  






The late evening sun is fading, the last dappled rays of light fleeing rapidly from the arena. The chilly wind is growing cold and its time for the riders to go home.  


Elizabeth Howard, dressed as Walt Disney's frog princess, and Dakota, sporting his Kermit hat and green, washable paint on his legs, take home a certificate for "Silliest Horse." 


Emily Sistrunk, decked out in war paint and dressed as an Indian princess, can't stop smiling as she clutches her certificate for "Wildest Costume." 


Waverly Glenn sits astride Toby, who is dressed as Bullseye, a character in the animated film, Toy Story 2. They take home a certificate for "Most Colorful."  


A week from now, the fall session will come to an end, and the trio will wait impatiently for spring. But their fight for independence, and the lessons they've learned so far, will continue.

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.