It’s a struggle for Star Fuchs to get from her stroller to the majestic horse that awaits her. She is 10 and has cerebral palsy.
But once she mounts Sultana, an 18-year-old purebred Andalusian, she is transformed.
Sultana’s legs, strong and sure, become Star’s legs. Sultana’s back, muscular and firm, becomes Star’s magical carpet ride.
And when the ride is over, way too quickly for Star, she sobs quietly and sweetly, heartbreakingly so. But Peggy Bass is there to console her.
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“You’re my rock Star,” Bass, executive director at the Good Hope Equestrian Training Center, tells her in between kisses and hugs.
And, as if on cue, Sultana then pokes her nose in between Star and Bass, making it a spontaneous and joyous group hug between child, instructor and the animal that bonds them.
Good Hope, a nonprofit organization in the rural Redland area of South Miami-Dade, is one of several equestrian centers in South Florida that uses horses to help children and adults with special needs
Bass, who has a Ph.D. in special education, partnered with Dr. Warren Quillian, a retired pediatrician, and the Brooks family, which provided financial resources, to help start Good Hope in 1999.
More recently, Bass has begun helping military veterans who are dealing with post traumatic stress disorder, thanks to a grant from the Dr. John T. MacDonald Foundation. That program is called “Horses Helping Heroes.”
Scientific studies have shown that equine-assisted therapy can enhance a patient’s socialization skills. Horse and rider connect, and that process starts by grooming the animal before even taking it out of the barn.
With someone such as Star, in her second year in the program, Bass said she has seen tremendous improvement in hand-eye coordination, posture, concentration and balance as well as leg strength.
Star and a dozen or so of her special-needs classmates from the Promised Land Academy and Therapy also get something else out of the experience : joy.
“I like riding horses, trotting,” Star said. “It makes me happy that I’m spending time with the horses. I want to have my own horse.”
Veronica Ward, the executive director of Promised Land, said she has seen improvement in all her students since she first brought them last year to Good Hope, which has helped more than 3,800 kids and adults of varying disabilities.
“We’ve seen improved muscle strength and posture but also self-esteem and confidence,” Ward said. “Star, for example, has grown in such a way that she’s now one of the leaders in the class.
“When Star is on a horse, it’s like she’s on top of the world. She’s in control. She can do what her mind wants to do but her legs can’t.”
Ward said a majority of her students were “very afraid” of the horses when they began the program.
“But little by little, they gained confidence by brushing and grooming the horse,” Ward said. “Over time, they trusted the horse, and they were able to get on it.
“They’ve become good riders, and they know all the horses’ names. They look forward to seeing if their ‘friends’ are here.”
Sultana and the other horses such as Red Rover and Lady Bug have also made friends with former members of the military such as Luis Gonzalez, a Marine Corps veteran who served in the Gulf War.
“He has experienced some PTSD, and he has a lot of nightmares,” said his wife, Estrella Gonzalez. “There are things that [war veterans] go through – things they saw when they were there. Sometimes he will see something on TV, and that will flare him up a little bit.”
Luis Gonzalez decided to take part in the “Horses Helping Heroes” project when he saw what Good Hope did for his daughter, Lauren, a 21-year-old who is on the autism spectrum and has dealt with a seizure disorder.
Lauren was initially frightened by horses, but, in the two years since she started taking part in the program, she has achieved tremendous improvement in her posture, her muscle tone and her self esteem. She no longer fears animals.
So if the program was good enough for Lauren, it was good enough for her dad, and Luis has been taking riding classes once every other week for the past month.
“Some of the stuff I’ve been through, it sticks with you,” said Luis, who has been riding Wyndham, an 11-year-old quarter horse. “The horse soothes you, helps you relax and takes your mind away from negative stuff.
“We all go through traumas in our life. But this helps. It feels nice to bond with [Wyndham]. He’s my buddy.”
How to get involved
Good Hope Equestrian Training Cener, 22155 SW 147th Ave., Redland. Call 305-258-2838