Riding therapy brings smiles

May 28, 2014 10:15 am • By Barb Bierman Batie, Midwest Producer

BATTLE CREEK, Neb. - She's everything from the pooper-scooper up to the CEO and S.M.I.L.E Inc. founder Patty Prauner wouldn't have it any other way.

The Battle Creek-based equine business specializes in recreational therapy on horseback for both children and adults, with special needs ranging from physical, mental to speech challenges.

"One little girl in a wheelchair started all this back in 1992," said Prauner, pointing to the covered arena and combination office, tack room and restrooms that now comprise the S.M.I.L.E. Inc. facilities.

The daughter of church friends was confined to a wheelchair after a devastating illness and her parents were searching for ways to help her improve posture, balance, coordination, strength and flexibility.

A horse lover and rider for years, Prauner had been researching therapeutic riding.

"Riding for the handicapped began in the early 1950s in Scandinavia after a young girl won an Olympic silver medal for dressage, despite being handicapped by polio. Her example stimulated a therapist to establish a riding program for disabled children," she said.

Prauner launched her program with the young girl riding in the yard of the house across the road from where the current facilities are. By 2000 the popularity of the riding program had grown to the point Prauner was running short of space for her horses and riders.

"We took a five-acre pivot corner and built the new facilities, which were finished in 2001," she said. "We like to say it's the best-producing five acres in the neighborhood because we produce smiles."

S.M.I.L.E. is an acronym for Stephanie's Miracles In Loving Equine in honor of that first student. What sets her program apart from others, notes Prauner, is the fact that they give actual riding lessons.

Because of that S.M.I.L.E. Inc. has 17 very specially trained horses. "We have to have horses that give them that freedom of riding the horse, even if it's only five steps," noted Prauner.

With 135 students riding at least once a week from May through October and ranging in age from 18 months up to age 79, Prauner notes proper care and maintenance of the animals is absolutely essential for their well-being, as well as that of the riders.

In late April, just before lessons started up for the 2014 riding season, Wayne, Neb., veterinarian Dr. Mark Zink and his vet tech assistant, Kris Wageman, arrived for an afternoon. Zink is trained as a chiropractor for animals and has been doing adjustments for the last six years. He is also trained in kinesiology, the study of how muscle groups work together, and also does acupuncture and electromagnetic stimulation.

"Therapy horses are perhaps the hardest to keep in shape, as they deal in so many disciplines," said Zink.

For three hours they worked on seven of the horses needing the most attention. For some it was a couple of quick adjustments on the neck. Within minutes the horse was moving more freely when Wageman put it through its paces. For others it took more work on the back, or perhaps a leg or even a rib.

During the examinations Zink discovered one horse was a diabetic and would need to be placed on a special diet. Another needed some special hoof work. Prauner noted she has Zink return at regular intervals to check all the horses and the chiropractic adjustments keep her animals in shape for their daily workouts.

April Osborn, Prauner's right-hand woman at SMILE, took in Zink's comments and suggestions on how to work through the issues of each horse during their daily workouts.

Osborn has been coming to S.M.I.L.E. ever since she was a baby. Her brother was among Prauner's first students in 1994 and Osborn learned from an early age about the benefits of therapy riding. "She started as a volunteer for me in junior high and now is one of my full-time instructors," said Prauner.

She warms the horses up, helps with chores and a lot of heavy lifting that Prauner must pace herself with because of her own years on horseback. "One thing I had to learn was to pencil myself in for riding twice a week so that I can fine tune the horses," noted Osborn.

As students arrive for their lessons they go through a series of steps before they can ride. First they brush their horse, and then put on the halter, blanket, saddle, bridle and finally their own helmet. It takes two to three people for each rider to help the student move through the preliminary steps and then stay with them as they ride.

Prauner noted there are a multitude of benefits with therapy riding and as soon as she receives a doctor's release her clients get to start riding. "The rhythmic movement experienced by a rider on a horse is similar to a human walking, and physical and occupational therapists use that as part of a therapeutic exercise program," she notes in her brochures.

Riding is also beneficial to those with mental disorders, particularly autistic children because of the discipline and concentration required, noted Prauner. "Many psychologically disturbed children and adults find a unique relationship with horses and learn to relate better to humans as well."

Creighton University has recognized S.M.I.L.E. Inc. as a rotation in its occupational therapy training. One Creighton student even developed a step board for the students to mark each step in preparing to ride.

Therapy helps with fine and gross motor skills and can enhance self-esteem. "Group homes have found out the adult handicapped behave so much better after having a chance to ride and we've added group therapy for troubled teenagers as well," added Prauner.

Testimonies from parents of S.M.I.L.E. clients are perhaps the most rewarding of all, said Prauner.

One mother wrote the following for an insert in the program's latest newsletter: "Just before we started the S.M.I.L.E. program we had been having problems with severe behaviors to the point we had to stop all therapies. Camdyn threw her best tantrums at them, but they just kept on working with her. She quickly learned the expectations and that riding the horses and playing the games was much more fun. She even started taking steps and walking in order to get her pony ready to ride. We have seen such progress in different areas and I can't say enough about this program."

There is a sense of hope and an abundance of love and joy at S.M.I.L.E. Inc. "If that joy ever goes away, I'll know I'm done," concluded Prauner.

How to learn more, how to help

For more information on S.M.I.L.E. Inc. go to its website at www.smilehorsetherapy.org. Lessons are $20 each, or $240 for 16 prepaid sessions. For students who can't afford the program, officials are working to establish a scholarship fund.

Donations are always welcome and SMILE Inc. has 501 (c) (3) status. They can be mailed to: S.M.I.L.E. Inc., Patty Prauner, 54646 832 Road, Madison NE 68748-6602.

Volunteers are needed for the summer. If interested contact S.M.I.L.E at 402-675-8462

Posted on: Sunday, September 28, 2014
Last modified on: Sunday, September 28, 2014

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