When it’s time to mount up, Belle Gordon enthusiastically climbs into the saddle on her favorite horse. Blond braids peek out of the 6-year-old’s riding helmet as she takes the reins and starts around the ring. Anyone watching sees a smiling, confident young rider.

Her parents see a miracle.

Belle rides at ManeGait Therapeutic Horsemanship in McKinney, a nonprofit facility that provides equestrian skill-based lessons and services for North Texas children
and adults with disabilities.

Photos by Lori Wilson Photography

Belle rides at ManeGait Therapeutic Horsemanship in McKinney, a nonprofit facility that provides equestrian skill-based lessons and services for North Texas children and adults with disabilities.

 

Belle is one of 23 participants making great strides in a new program that began in the fall of 2012 at ManeGait Therapeutic Horsemanship in McKinney, a nonprofit facility that provides equestrian skill-based lessons and services for North Texas children and adults with disabilities.

Called GaitWay to the Brain, the new program builds upon and amplifies the benefits that participants receive through therapeutic horseback riding. It’s based upon a growing body of scientific evidence that performing certain tasks and exercises can help form fresh neural pathways in the brain, leading to new cognitive connections that improve focus and understanding. Participants work on daily therapeutic activities at home to further boost the GaitWay program’s benefits.

ManeGait is the only therapeutic horsemanship program in the North Texas area to offer this unique “brain-building” program.

Amazing Progress

Belle, who has been diagnosed with Autism, was seeing a bevy of specialists when she started the GaitWay program in January 2013. Her parents hoped GaitWay — and therapeutic horseback riding in general — would augment Belle’s ongoing therapies, allow her to be surrounded by an accepting community and let her develop a new skill.

They didn’t expect that Belle would make astounding improvements in just six months.

“This is a different child than she was six months ago,” says her father, Ben Gordon. “Being in the GaitWay program — I think it’s the only way to explain the progress she’s made.”

Crystal Gordon, Belle’s mother, says the 6-year-old’s overall happiness has increased, she has a better sense of self, and her use of language “has just exploded.” Her parents explain that Belle’s new ability to use sentences and different words to communicate has made a world of difference because Belle feels far less frustrated than she had just six months ago.

“Belle has learned to read, write, do simple math, express her feelings as never before, to speak in sentences — not just in one-word communications — and desire pretend play and really take it far,” Crystal says.

 

Because Belle’s attention span has tripled, the 6-year-old now has the ability to self regulate and can be around crowds and loud sounds. It’s been life-changing, her parents say. Their daughter now enjoys eating in public and going shopping at a grocery store or the mall. She even sat with rapt attention through her older brother’s band concert.

Crystal’s eyes well with tears when she talks about the positive changes she’s witnessed in her daughter. Perhaps one of the most important things that GaitWay has provided, she says, is hope.

An Organic Beginning

ManeGait Executive Director Patricia Nelson and Donor Relations Manager Landon Darling Schneider know that hope means a great deal for parents seeking to help their children with disabilities, and they are honored that ManeGait is known for providing it.

4-year-old Christian Pietersz has been working with Harwell since the GaitWay program began.

4-year-old Christian Pietersz has been working with Harwell since the GaitWay program began.

Founded in November 2007, ManeGait is a testament to the healing power of the horse.Riders with various disabilities learn to control a horse, gaining body strength, flexibility, better balance, improved range of motion and physical endurance, as well as improved cognitive, emotional and social skills. Riders receive assistance from Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International registered instructors, more than 300 dedicated volunteers and carefully screened, calm horses.

Interestingly, Robin Harwell, the certified speech pathologist with 35 years of expertise who now directs the GaitWay program, initially was a ManeGait volunteer. She has a private practice, teaches fellow therapists how to integrate a neurobiological approach into work with their patients, and she formerly worked with a therapeutic horsemanship program in Louisiana.

As a ManeGait volunteer, Harwell discussed the neurodevelopmental framework she uses to assess and treat her clients, whose challenges include ADHD, Autism, Down Syndrome, dyslexia, stroke, PTSD and Parkinson’s disease, among others. ManeGait leaders were highly interested — and wondered if a similar framework would help their riders.

ManeGait’s board approved the GaitWay to the Brain pilot program, which began in fall 2012 with ManeGait donors’ support. The program is now being expanded thanks to a CoServ grant and additional donor funding.

Harwell explains that humans learn and interact as the brain receives information along three major sensory pathways – auditory, visual and vestibular (balance). Usually, the brain seamlessly processes this information.A disability or injury can negatively affect the receptive pathways, but the right tools can help improve brain function, especially since new brain cells are created every day, Harwell says. The old belief that someone is born with a certain number of brain cells and those cells die off over time is simply wrong, according to the latest scientific research.

“With brain-building techniques, you can change the architecture of the brain,” Harwell says. “We are literally laying down wiring that adds RAM to the brain.”

 

GaitWay participants arrive a half-hour before their regular riding lesson in order to work with Harwell. In a cozy gatehouse that is being transformed into cognitive brain-building center, riders take part in structured, specific exercises individualized to their needs. They listen to music designed to stimulate their brains and balance systems while being gently spun. They perform exercises, sing songs and even drink water to activate “brain buttons,” as the children call them. Goals are set, progress is noted and adjustments are made for each rider, who then works at home on activities designed to reinforce the brain building.

Harwell also works with the participants during their therapeutic horseback riding lessons. The result has been that GaitWay participants are more focused during their riding lessons so they get more from them.And that progress has been carrying over into everyday life.

Parents Rejoice

Holly Sanchez’s 4-year-old son, Christian Pietersz, has been working with Harwell since the GaitWay program began. The youngster’s speech and gait issues have improved, and he’s much more focused and calm.

The children love riding their favorite horses.

The children love riding their favorite horses.

One side of Christian’s body is weaker than the other, and GaitWay exercises along with therapeutic horseback riding have helped him grow stronger, Sanchez says. “It’s helping both sides of his brain to be retrained to work better together,” she says.

Sanchez and the Gordons watched their children play and dance before huddling together in front of a computer screen where a ManeGait volunteer had been working. When 6-year-old Belle noticed that a visitor was taking notes, she happily pointed at her name written on a notepad. Both she and Christian said the best part about visiting ManeGait is getting to ride their favorite horse.

Their parents say ManeGait and Robin Harwell have earned special places in their hearts.

“Robin was key in our success,” Crystal Gordon says. “She has changed our lives.The GaitWay program has allowed Belle to become a truly happy kid. We are forever grateful.”

For more information on ManeGait and the GaitWay to the Brain program, visit ManeGait.org. For more information about Harwell’s approach, visit BuildTheBrain.net. ManeGait attributes much of its success to its dedicated volunteers but notes that more volunteers are always needed. To volunteer at ManeGait, click on the “Volunteer” tab on ManeGait.org.

 

About the author: Holly Becka is the owner of HorsePower Communications, a public relations, marketing and business writing firm in McKinney. Email her at holly@horsepowercommunications.com.