Real Horsepower: Changing the Lives of Children with Autism
Charles Fletcher

December, 2008

When Matthew, a young man once diagnosed with autism, recently celebrated his 16th birthday, he and his family had much more to celebrate than another candle on the cake. Thanks to the interventions he received at SpiritHorse Therapeutic Riding Center, Matthew’s condition has improved to the extent that he is now considered “non-autistic.”  

 SpiritHorse Therapy is changing lives.   The center, located in Corinth, just north of Dallas, provides free therapeutic horseback riding services to more than 450 children from the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex each week, operating 12 hours a day, seven days a week.  SpiritHorse is unique in that it is the only center in America that provides all private therapeutic horseback riding services free of charge to people with disabilities, children who are victims of abuse, at-risk-youth, youth after drug-rehab, and women who are victims of violence. This award-winning program currently serves more children than any other center in the world.

A two- year study by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center recently concluded that SpiritHorse is making significant strides toward reversing autism.  The study followed 35 children who received specific equine-assisted healthcare treatment methods developed exclusively by SpiritHorse founder Charles Fletcher and his staff.  Prior to treatment, the 35 children participating were classified as being severely autistic with a rating of 38 on the Childhood Autism Rating Scale. However, at the end of six months of intervention therapy at SpiritHorse, their rating improved to 34 – a number in the moderate/mild range – halfway to a “non-autistic” rating of 29.5. 

SpiritHorse plans to evaluate the children again after 12 and 24 months and expects many of them, as well as many of the other 140 children with autism the program serves, to reach a “non-autistic” rating.   

SpiritHorse gives hope to hundreds of families in Dallas, Tarrant, Collin, and Denton counties as well as six additional counties in the Greater Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex.  Many students come from so far away (one student lives in Bowie and another in Sulphur Springs – both more than 100 miles from SpiritHorse) because there is no access to this type of healthcare for the economically disadvantaged and the uninsured nor are there services to at-risk-youth in their cities.  

The average cost for the two most effective autism therapies available, Applied Behavior Analysis and “Floortime,” is $50,000 per year per child.  Unfortunately, only major US companies such as Microsoft and Home Depot have insurance programs that cover these therapies, and virtually no private insurance plans cover this treatment. With access to these therapies, 50% to 60% of toddlers with autism can be mainstreamed into regular classrooms without personal aides by the time they reach school age.  Without these therapies, the percentage of children who can function in regular classrooms is extremely low. Without help, these children are condemned to a lifetime of disability, unemployment, and in many cases, institutionalization.  With its free, one-on-one lessons, SpiritHorse is changing that one child at a time. 

“We always wanted Will to have therapeutic horseback riding, but could not afford it. We still cannot believe we can receive this service for free! Will began riding in March 2003. Who would have known that a boy who had trouble with talking, writing, throwing a ball- every area of development- was a natural born rider? Will- just the child – not the child with the disability- can ride well. It’s something he’s really good at. He shines. Mr. Charles says his sitting trot is the best! It calms him. It changes his outlook, his whole being. We have had some bad days. Some of them at SpiritHorse. Mr. Charles has never given up on Will. No one at SpiritHorse, even Valentino, Will’s horse, has given up on him. Everyone here believes in Will. I have seen Will, having a bad day, agitated and hyper, get on Valentino, start riding, and it’s as if he is covered with a blanket of angel wings. He’s at peace, happy. He’s learning new things. A year ago he could barely guide Valentino to turn with the reins- now he’s turning from one side of the ring to the other.”~Lisa Tekampe, Will’s Mom

SpiritHorse utilizes key elements of Applied Behavior Analysis, “DIR/Floortime”, and exercises on  horseback that create positive neurological changes, developed at SpiritHorse, in its therapy program for children with autism spectrum disorder.  The program methods provide interaction between the child, the instructor, and the parent during the lesson while focusing on the core autism deficits.  This unique approach includes the development of synapses or circuits in the left hemisphere of the brain (the portion of the brain most affected by autism), the reversal of under-connectivity (in people with autism the two sides of the brain do not work well together and are said to be “under-connected”), and the increase of focus through the use of compression vests. 

When SpiritHorse was founded, there were no industry-specific methods that addressed each aspect of autism individually.  As the pioneer organization in state-of-the-art equine assisted healthcare, SpiritHorse is committed to pursuing further studies in intervention with children with autism and the development of even more effective methods. Beginning in February, the center will team with representatives from VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in a six month study to provide treatment to 170 children with autism.  The project will utilize existing and new methods specifically developed by SpiritHorse.  The VU University representatives will analyze and evaluate the results.  They are interested in making the SpiritHorse therapies available to centers in Europe. 

In only six years of operation, SpiritHorse has heard 46 children speak their first word, watched 35 children take their first step, and seen 30 children sit up for the first time; and the center firmly believes its program will continue to be a success. 

Despite its many hopes for the future, SpiritHorse has felt the effects of the recent economic downturn.  The average cost of providing equine-assisted therapy for one rider for one year in the United States is $5,500 in a group setting. 

While SpiritHorse provides private lessons at a cost of only $1,000 per rider per year, the center itself undertakes this expense, relying in large part on the generosity of donors to continue its mission.  Unfortunately, due to a shortage of funds, the center was forced to end its fall 2008 session three weeks early. 

While the SpiritHorse staff is working hard writing grants and exploring other avenues for funding, the program needs financial support now more than ever to ensure it can continue to provide one-on-one therapy sessions free of charge to its many riders in the spring of 2009 and to move 67 children from its waiting list to active therapy.  To help raise public awareness of its program, SpiritHorse will host an open house to be held at the facility at 1960 Post Oak Dr., Corinth, TX 76210 at noon on December 18, during which the public is invited to see first-hand the miracles achieved every day.   

Those who cannot attend but want to learn more and contribute to this very worthy cause are encouraged to contact SpiritHorse at 940-497-2946 or spirithorsethera@aol.com or find the organization’s website at www.spirithorsetherapy.com where online donations are gratefully accepted.    



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