Therapy Helps Harness Abilities

Once a week from March to November, Austin Rafferty, 9, mucks out stalls, brushes horses and provides carrots and clean water to his towering companions before entering the corral to work on his riding skills.

Austin was born with cerebral palsy. His weekly horse therapy, beginning when he was 2, has helped him gain core strength and walk with the help of a walker.

“We started with a child who was hunched over on the horse. He now is fully upright and has the core strength to hold himself up,” says Austin’s mother and State Farm® employee Allison Rafferty. “It’s been incredible to see his progress over the years.”

Austin is non-verbal, but when he’s riding, he expresses his joy.

“You’ll hear his squeals of delight. You’ll hear him laughing his head off while riding the horses,” Allison says. “Children with disabilities work so hard just to get through the day. To have them do something fun and, at the same time, help them physically is amazing.”

Horse therapy isn’t a new idea. It’s been helping children for decades, although it isn’t considered mainstream.

Kathy Beverage, State Farm employee in Bloomington, Ill., contracted polio at a young age and used horse therapy to build strength and muscle density.

“My father grew up near a horse breeding farm and worked for a professional trainer when he went to college. As a result, we rode ponies as kids,” Kathy says. “I had a milder form of polio. As part of my therapy, I became part of a more formal program with people who worked with kids with special needs.”

Kathy and her family continue to be involved in the equine world. Her sister is a professional horse trainer, and Kathy has competed in horse shows throughout her life.

Benefits of horse riding include balance, hand-eye coordination, upper-body strength and core strength. The motion of a horse walking is closely associated with the motion of a person’s pelvis when they walk. And, animal companions are therapeutic.

“The horse doesn’t care whether you can or can’t do something. There is a sense of accomplishment. You can be like other kids or other people because you can do this activity,” Kathy says.

Allison adds, “As a parent, it’s amazing to see your non-typical child enjoy something a typical child can enjoy.”

Plus, animals are secret-keepers.

“The simple things of being able to communicate secretly, like whispering in a horse’s ear, start to blossom and snowball to communication with volunteers, family and therapists,” Allison adds.

Kathy supports equine therapy through donations. When she retires, she plans to volunteer with a horse therapy program.

Allison sits on the board of directors for her son’s program, Reins of Life in Pennsylvania.

“It’s important to have these programs to provide that sense of normalcy,” Kathy says.

“You take the disability out of it, and it becomes an ability,” Allison says.