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updated: 8/17/2012 8:35 AM

Therapeutic riding program fundraiser gets Hollywood star power

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  • Abbey Ross, 4, is among 200 people building strength and confidence through horseback riding programs offered by BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Education Center. The center's fundraiser Saturday, Aug. 18, features an appearance by actress and animal lover Betty White.

    Abbey Ross, 4, is among 200 people building strength and confidence through horseback riding programs offered by BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Education Center. The center's fundraiser Saturday, Aug. 18, features an appearance by actress and animal lover Betty White.
    Courtesy of Vicki Ross

  • Video: White on her love of animals

 
 

Once a week, 4-year-old Abbey Ross rides atop a horse at BraveHearts, and she has no idea it's work.

It's therapy, actually, without the clinical setting -- without anyone convincing her to work longer or harder to strengthen the muscles weakened by her mild form of cerebral palsy.

"She can't get mad at the horse," said her mother, Vicki Ross, of Sycamore. "She never says she wants to be done. Having the horse is just a wonderful thing to capture her interest."

Abbey is one of 200 people who benefit each week from the not-for-profit BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Education Center.

The organization's biggest annual fundraiser -- Hot in Hinsdale -- takes place Saturday, Aug. 18, and includes an appearance by award-winning actress and animal lover Betty White.

The money raised goes to support the 25 horses used for therapy at its two locations in Poplar Grove and Harvard -- including those that provide hippotherapy for Abbey. Hippotherapy is a strategy that incorporates physical, occupational and speech-language therapy using the movement of the horse to improve trunk strength, balance and control as well as fine motor control, sensory integration and attention skills.

For others, the horses at BraveHearts lend a caring and nonjudgmental ear and a soft, warm body to hug to help with emotional healing.

Among those who seek out BraveHearts are veterans who were wounded physically or emotionally, Gold Star mothers who have lost children in war, women who have been abused, and children and adults with a variety of diagnoses -- from cerebral palsy to autism to sensory integration issues.

"It's unique because it services so many different people," said Meggan Hill-McQueeney, the president and COO of BraveHearts who is a master level instructor and has been involved with therapeutic riding and hippotherapy since 1994.

"We have various populations -- from very young children to much older adults and working with all different diagnoses."

Other therapies offered include boot camps and therapeutic carriage driving and riding.

"Every person who comes to us is someone who is looking for hope and help and some form of happiness, and that's what BraveHearts … is all about," said Marge Gunnar, BraveHeart's founder and secretary. "We're about providing as much hope and help as we can."

It's through Gunnar's own need for help -- when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 20 years ago -- and the solace she found in her Lipizzan stallion, Max, that the idea for BraveHearts was born.

She survived and thrived, and that's what she wishes for every person who visits the stables.

"The best part about our work here is seeing the people that we help," said Gunnar, of Hinsdale. "Watching sadness turn into smiles, watching adults and children who have some limitations in their lives overcome those limitations to the best of their ability. The greatest satisfaction is helping an individual reach their highest potential."

The Ross family credits Abbey's two years of hippotherapy at BraveHearts in preparing her to take her first independent steps, which she did in March.

Riding a horse one hour each week has allowed her core muscles to strengthen naturally with the swaying motion of the horse.

"If you imagine yourself on the horse, the rhythmic back and forth and side to side, it mimics walking for you and I on a flat surface," Vicki said. "That's working those muscles without having them walk. Some of the kids aren't able to walk. Those muscles have been strengthened up by the gait of the horse itself."

Abbey's precious first steps -- they probably wouldn't have happened as soon as they did without the time she's spent at BraveHearts, Vicki Ross said.

"This is just one form of exercise that puts her on the fast track," she said. "It's an overall body workout that she doesn't get from a one-on-one therapist. That's not to say that (a clinical setting) isn't good, but I believe hippotherapy is more concentrated. It's a total body workout."

Some days after therapy, Abbey is exhausted. And she never even knew she did any work.

"She doesn't know she's getting therapy," Ross said. "She's just thinks she's riding a horse."

Saturday night's fundraiser includes hosted beverage and food stations and silent and live auctions. Auction items range from vacations and luxury spa retreats to Betty White herself, who will eat brunch on Sunday, Aug. 19, with the highest bidder.

Best known for her roles on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Golden Girls," White currently stars on the sitcom "Hot in Cleveland," as well as produces and stars in the prankster show "Off Their Rockers."

White serves on the board of the Morris Animal Foundation with mutual board members of BraveHearts, and she'll speak at the event. She has one particular favorite at the stables -- a horse named Baby.

"Betty's become a wonderful, wonderful friend," Gunnar said. "When you're with her, it's not like being with a Hollywood icon. We call Baby and Betty our own 'Golden Girls.'"

Hot in Hinsdale starts at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Ruth Lake Country Club, 6200 S. Madison St., Hinsdale. Tickets are $175 each. For information, visit braveheartsriding.org or call Jennifer at (815) 703-7043.

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