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updated: 6/16/2012 7:54 PM

Horse therapy builds skills, confidence for children with special needs

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  • Joshua Gallegos, 10, of Aurora, competed in a bag toss during the 2012 Star Riders Celebration presented Saturday by Blazing Prairie Stars in Maple Park.

       Joshua Gallegos, 10, of Aurora, competed in a bag toss during the 2012 Star Riders Celebration presented Saturday by Blazing Prairie Stars in Maple Park.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Dressed as a princess, Madelyn Kennedy, 4, of Batavia, shows off her ribbon for competing in the 2012 Star Riders Celebration. The facility, built in 2001, provides therapeutic riding and hippotherapy sessions to children with special needs.

       Dressed as a princess, Madelyn Kennedy, 4, of Batavia, shows off her ribbon for competing in the 2012 Star Riders Celebration. The facility, built in 2001, provides therapeutic riding and hippotherapy sessions to children with special needs.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Madelyn Kennedy, 4, of Batavia, reels in a fish from the stable floor Saturday during the 2012 Star Riders Celebration presented by Blazing Prairie Stars in Maple Park. The therapy facility was a dream of St. Charles resident Catherine Raack.

       Madelyn Kennedy, 4, of Batavia, reels in a fish from the stable floor Saturday during the 2012 Star Riders Celebration presented by Blazing Prairie Stars in Maple Park. The therapy facility was a dream of St. Charles resident Catherine Raack.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Grace Moreno, 4, of Elburn, carefully places a ring on one of the poles Saturday at the Star Riders Celebration in Maple Park.

       Grace Moreno, 4, of Elburn, carefully places a ring on one of the poles Saturday at the Star Riders Celebration in Maple Park.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 

Joshua Gallegos was in the zone Saturday morning.

The 10-year-old Aurora boy, dressed in full Batman suit and mask, sat straight upon his horse Midnight. Flanked by trained therapists, the pair trotted around the ring, stopping to toss a series of beanbags at a marker during the Blazing Prairie Stars annual Riders Celebration in Maple Park.

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After dismounting, he ran to his mother, Maria, with a ribbon and a smile.

Joshua has been participating for the past year in the Blazing Prairie Stars horse therapy program, a longtime vision of St. Charles resident Catherine Raack.

The biweekly sessions are both time consuming -- a 45-minute drive each way -- and expensive for the family of four, but Maria Gallegos says the results are indisputable.

Just a few months after joining the program, Joshua -- diagnosed at age 2 with autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder -- stopped having to wear a medicated patch.

He's calmer now, and he interacts with other children more, his mother says.

"Help is there; you've got to look for it," Maria Gallegos said.

Documents from Ancient Greece show horse therapy dates to 600 B.C., with the practice growing in popularity in recent years around the suburbs and across the country.

Earlier this month on a three-day campaign stop in Florida, Ann Romney, wife of the former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential hopeful, visited a therapeutic horse-riding facility telling patients she was unable to walk at one point because her multiple sclerosis symptoms were so severe. But, Ann Romney said, the "excitement of getting on a horse" helped her build her strength and caused her symptoms to ease.

Raack opened the therapy barn in 2001, nearly 10 years after she lost her vision and underwent cornea transplants.

Following that surgery, Raack said, riding a horse helped her to not only reacquaint herself with the area, but to heal emotionally from the trauma of losing her sight.

A speech pathologist by trade, Raack said she began to do research on the benefits of horse therapy, becoming increasingly determined to build a facility for area children. She bought the land in 1996 and put her life savings into building the facility.

Today, Blazing Prairie Stars has a staff of 10 working with 13 specially trained horses.

Roughly 90 children participate in the program, their special needs ranging from cerebral palsy to speech and language disabilities to bipolar disorder.

Half-hour sessions run about $40, with a not-for-profit organization, Blazing Prairie Stars Friends, providing scholarships to children whose families are unable to cover the full cost.

Lauren Schaeffel, of Aurora, takes part in as many sessions as her family can afford each year. Her father, Dan, cites a boost in confidence as well as better posture for the 14-year-old who suffers from developmental delays, autism and a chromosomal disorder.

Her riding helmet already on her head, Lauren fidgeted quietly in her folding chair Saturday, minutes before she would do a series of back and forth exercises with her favorite horse, Forrest.

"Riding," she said, "makes me feel proud."

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