Thursday, May 9, 2013

In Perfect Harmony: Horses as Healers

Horses are such wonderful healers!  ~Declan

In perfect harmony: horses as healers

Posted: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 12:02 pm on

Dogs have long been valued in the medical world as indispensable companions for people with disabilities. They can see and hear for the impaired, move for the immobile and are better than Prozac in lifting the spirits of just about anyone, with or without disabilities.
But how about horses?

“Few people know the gifts horses bring with them,” said Tara Glessman, founder of Harmony Ranch, a nonprofit equine-assisted activities program in Mountain Ranch, where children and young adults partake in recreational therapeutic riding.
Glessman bridled her 10-year-old mustang Hadassah and led her through the barn doors toward the arena on the El Dorado Ranch property. The horse is one of six that Glessman uses to work with students who have emotional, behavioral and physical disabilities such as autism, post-traumatic stress syndrome, Asperger syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“Horses changed my life in ways nobody could since I was 14. I wanted to share this gift with others,” Glessman said. “We provide a place where students can make a change in a very positive way.”
Her students have the opportunity to develop trust, self-confidence, and responsibility through mastering horsemanship skills. She builds a strong foundation by teaching them how to halter their horse, groom saddle, lead and ride. They discuss how horses think and how to be safe around them.
“Our goal is independence,” Glessman added.
Over time, students often learn to ride largely because they’ve developed strong communication skills with the horse, forging a trusting relationship that can be elusive with people.
“Horses teach kids empathy,” Glessman explained as she admired Hadassah. “They’re masters of communication without words, the perfect mirror of emotions. Sometimes a student can’t tell me what’s wrong, but it’s reflected in their relationship with the horse.”
“Eighty percent of human communication is non-verbal,” she continued. “A horse is honest. The way they respond to the way they are ridden tells a lot about the student’s energy.”
Glessman has seen dramatic changes in her riders. Three years ago, a student with Asperger syndrome began her program.
“He had intense hyperactive behavior. At first, he couldn’t even look me in the eyes,” she recalled. “Over time, he started to trust and connect to the horses, and controlled his emotional swings when he saw them reflected in the horse’s behavior. On a trail ride one afternoon, as he rode an Appaloosa named “Jellybean,” the peace and rhythmic movement of the trail provided a safe haven. He started to open up and trust me, too. Then he looked deeply into my eyes; I didn’t think it was possible.”
Glessman smiled quickly, as emotion caught her breath. “He’s finding himself. He’s getting comfortable in his own skin. It’s beautiful.”
Besides the soulful allure of galloping a white stallion down a sandy beach into the sunset, there are very real physical benefits to riding as well.
For example, at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Danish equestrian legend Lis Hartel became the first woman in the equestrian sports to win an Olympic silver medal. She accomplished this feat despite being paralyzed below the knees, and told the world how riding her horse, Jubilee, had helped her recover from polio.
“A horse’s stride is the closest to the human gait,” Glessman explained. “Moving in rhythm with the horse provides sensory input which is rhythmic and repetitive, very similar to human movement patterns of the pelvis while walking. This stimulates muscle memory.” Riding can improve balance, posture, mobility and function for people with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, stroke, and traumatic brain injury.
How did Harmony Ranch begin? Three years ago, Glessman started teaching at Bridlewood Equestrian Center in Copperopolis. In January of 2012, she moved to the rolling green hills of El Dorado Ranch in Mountain Ranch, and became a certified trainer in horsemanship skills and safety training with the International Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International. She feels fortunate to see her vision blossom into reality with the use of a large barn, ten horse stalls, a round pen, arena and easy access to serene mountain trails.

As Executive Director, trainer and barn manager, Glessman is grateful for a group of dedicated volunteers who assist her.
“They are a huge part of our success. I’d welcome anyone interested in volunteering to contact me, so we can help more kids,” she added hopefully.
“We keep our riding prices very low and have a sponsorship program as well. I don’t want to turn anyone away. Everyone should have a chance to heal,” Glessman smiled as Hadassah seemed to whinny in agreement.
Glessman admits that meeting the expenses of Harmony Ranch is challenging.
“I just can’t let the kids down,” she said without hesitation. “I’m very lucky to have a great board of directors who share my passion and determination. This isn’t a job; it’s a mission.”
While more studies are needed to show exactly what role horses play in health, Glessman sees firsthand the benefits of her program.
“We’re reaching those hard-to-reach kids,” she said as she led Hadassah back to her stall, stroking the horse’s soft mane gently. “I’ve seen how lives can change by working with horses. I just love what I get to do.”
For more information on Harmony Ranch, contact Tara Glessman at (209) 754-4299 or

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