Trudy Kuester, left, has brought her daughter Maddie Kuester to Iron Horse Farms for more than two years. KATHLEEN STURGEON/Staff. (click for larger version)
June 11, 2014MILTON, Ga. – Just minutes away from the bustling suburbs of Milton lies Iron Horse Farm, an oasis where special needs children experience a different type of therapy. The farm has three separate equine programs – a therapeutic riding program, an able-bodied riding program and a training program.
Maddie Kuester, a 10-year-old with a non-verbal learning disorder, is a frequent visitor to the farm. Her mother, Trudy, says after bringing Maddie to the farm, she noticed an improvement in Maddie's patience and behavior.
"There are so many things that she can't do in the classroom that she can do here," said Kuester. "Everything they do here is working on a skill for Maddie."
Maddie is just one of many children with disabilities who supplement standard therapy with horse riding lessons.
In its third year, Iron Horse's therapeutic riding program now has almost 20 clients, something that is a dream come true for owner Christine Johnston. Growing up around horses fostered her love for the animals, but also for competing – until Johnston was humbled by something she experienced three years ago at the farm.
"We had a 3-year-old boy smile and belly laugh for the first time," said Johnston. "I came outside and started singing, which I'm the worst singer in the world, and he started laughing. His mom starts crying and I said, 'what did I do?' and she says 'that's the first time I've seen my kid smile or laugh.'"
From that moment on, Johnston felt like she was doing the right thing with her life.
"Having an experience like that, it gives you a whole new perspective on God's purpose for you," said Johnston. "It is amazing. It's humbling, and it changes your perspective. It's been incredible."
While the horses have an undeniable impact on their small riders' lives, the children also help the horses. Most of the therapy horses are retired show horses that were ready and rearing to get back to their former busy lives.
"They have a new lease on life," said Johnston. "It's amazing because they're so well trained and they're so responsive, and when you find the right one, they crave that interaction with the kids. They go from these crabby old men to being like puppies when the kids come."
The children develop relationships with the horses so that they feel more comfortable, and the confidence they gain often allows them to overcome difficulties they experience in other aspects of their lives.
"They come in with this list of what they can't do," said Johnston. "We seem to break all of those barriers. We get to be part of it, but it's the horse doing it. Every kid seems to get past what we're told they can't do."
Iron Horse strives to make any visit to the farm fun for all involved.
"Our goal is for this to be a one-stop shop," she said. "A kid can come in to do a therapeutic lesson. The siblings can have a lesson if they want so they're not left out, and we can offer family counseling. We are trying to offer a family experience and not a negative environment."
Making the visit fun starts with being safety conscious. Johnston and her staff are vigilant in taking the appropriate measures to keep everyone safe, including the children and horses. Johnston utilizes her connections with occupational therapists and physical therapists, is a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International-certified instructor and has two service dogs (and one in training) to make sure that everyone's needs are met and any safety hazards are avoided.
"We will not put a child on a horse that is not mentally or physically in a good spot to be ridden," said Johnston. "They are 1,000-pound animals. You want that environment to be as safe as possible."
Johnston understands that the standard therapy that the children receive in their daily routines is incredibly important, but what happens when the child is on a horse is almost magical.
"They're in control of something," she said. "For a lot of these kids, the only time they're in control of something is when they're sitting on the horse."