Michael Fuentes has cerebral palsy, autism and an almost useless right hand.
But that doesn’t stop him from holding Oreo, a Welsh Cross horse, with both hands at Good Hope Equestrian Training Center in Redland.
“His balance has improved, his legs are stronger and he is much more focused,” said his mother, Andrea, of her 14-year-old son, who has been at Good Hope for about a year. “It has also helped his self-esteem as he is very proud of his progress.”
Good Hope is one of several equestrian centers in South Florida working with special needs children and adults, using horses to help them focus, build their muscles and enhance their socialization skills by connecting to the 1,500-pound animals, among the oldest on earth.
“When the children are on the horse, they are set free,” said Betty Joyce, who has watched the children’s progress in her six years volunteering at Good Hope. “It becomes their passion.”
Peggy Bass, Ph.D. in special education, had about three decades of experience working with children before partnering with Dr. Warren Quillian, a retired Coral Gables pediatrician whose father began the pediatric training program at Jackson Memorial Hospital. One of Quillian’s patients, the Brooks family, who has a special needs child, was also instrumental in creating Good Hope.
“Research has proven that equine-assisted therapy helps with balance, posture, coordination, motor skills and concentration,” said Bass, 46.
Drew Coman, a University of Miami researcher and doctorate fellow in psychology, has studied the effects of equine-assisted therapy on children with varying disabilities.
“Equine therapy serves as a beneficial vehicle, which requires a lot of stimulation for the children,” said Coman, 29, whose research showed improvement in vestibular movement, which contributes to balance and eye movement, and social and sensory interaction.
Sheila Ramer, 66, has noticed improvement in her autistic daughter, Sarah, 28, whom she said has greatly advanced after taking lessons at the Funies Foundation in Southwest Ranches in Broward County about a year ago.
“When Sarah is on Goldie, the horse, she has no autistic tendencies,” said her mother. “I see a calmness in her.”
Luis and Rosalinda Bustamante founded the Funies Foundation in 2008 to help train special-needs children participate in the equine sector of the Special Olympics.
“The change you see in the children is amazing,” said Rosalinda Bustamante, 52. “Some kids come here with no speech, and by the third session, they start saying, ‘Mommy, Mommy, look at me.’ It is a feeling I can’t explain.”
Samantha Cossin has also noticed how riding can develop certain areas of a child’s brain. Cossin, 22, is the head instructor at the Davie Ranch Foundation, founded in 2007 by cancer survivor Edwin Melendez.
With a B.A. in neuroscience from Florida Atlantic University, Cossin works to stimulate specific areas of the child’s brain, such as the parietal lobe, which processes information relating to touch, and the cerebellum, which controls balance.
Since Cossin has been at the Davie Ranch, she has mostly worked with children ages 5 through 15. One 15-year-old girl, who has a history of seizures and had used only sign language to communicate, started speaking to her therapy horse one day, Cossin said.
“My experience with helping special needs children has inspired me to push boundaries with the lessons I give and taught me the true importance of unconditional love,” said Cossin.
Isabella Izquierdo, a clinical psychologist who works with students at the Funies Foundation, said she has noticed significant changes during her two-year tenure.
One 4-year-old boy would cry every time he had to wear the riding helmet and did not like being near any horse, Izquierdo said. In a couple of weeks, the boy would put on his own helmet and ride for the complete lesson.
“Horse therapy helps the children develop concentration skills,” said Izquierdo, 28, who graduated in psychology from the University of Miami and completed two master’s degrees in Barcelona, one in clinical and health psychology and another in early childhood intervention.
Caring for horses — and the children — can mean a lot of long hours.
With 14 horses to care for, a year-round adult school program and more than 400 people who ride per year, Bass at Good Hope is one busy person.
“Sometimes you have to stay up the whole night taking care of a horse,” said Bass. “But the next day you make it through because of the joy and laughter of the riders.”
Melendez, the founder of Davie Ranch Foundation, is a two-time Hodgkin’s Lymphoma cancer survivor. Today, he remains cancer-free and finds inspiration in watching the children and horses.
“Being able to do all this with the horses is beyond what words are able to communicate,” said Melendez, 43.
Although Melendez runs his own multimedia company to help sustain the foundation, he stops by the ranch nearly every day after work.
“You definitely see the results. It’s almost as if the horses know something is up and it’s amazing the way they act,” Melendez said. “It’s just a magical experience.”