While the reasons why may not be fully understood, the idea is widely accepted that horses can sometimes have a therapeutic effect on human beings.
Horses are therefore utilized in several forms of therapy for people with disabilities, and multiple equine therapy organizations operate in the United States.
One of those is Spirit Horse International, based in Corinth, Texas, and an affiliated facility known as Spirit Horse JC Ranch, recently began operation in southeastern Texas County.
Spirit Horse JC Ranch president and director Jenni Spacek-Elseman is a Summersville native who has twin three-year-old boys with autism – Creek and Jesse James. After hearing about Spirit Horse and its many success stories, Spacek-Elseman purposed to open a branch in south-central Missouri. She made an arrangement with the owners of a 415-acre tract of land north of Willow Springs that includes a home and a 72,000 square-foot indoor rodeo facility formerly known as Soaring Eagle Arena, and she and her family members moved in about a year ago.
Spirit Horse was founded in 2002 by Charles Fletcher, a retired telecommunications expert who started the operation the age of 62 with only three riders at his property in Corinth. Fletcher has an extensive equestrian background, including more than 50 years of training and showing many breeds in almost every discipline. He is a well-known author who has published many stories about fox hunting, and is certified with the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NAHRA) as an instructor in both riding and carriage driving.
Spirit Horse’s website, www.spirithorsetherapy.com, states that its mission is “to assist individuals with special needs in reaching their full potential through interaction with horses.” To achieve that goal, Fletcher has developed a research-based program (with the help of many studies conducted at North Texas State University) that includes specific steps and guidelines.
“The characteristics our boys were showing were really taking over their lives,” Spacek-Elseman said, “so we started looking for different things that could help them. Then we found Spirit Horse. Charles and I corresponded for several months and then it just all came about.”
After completing comprehensive Spirit Horse schooling at Fletcher’s ranch, Spacek-Elseman and a handful of volunteer staff members became licensed equine health care specialists, and the Texas County property was licensed as an affiliated center.
There are 40 licensed Spirit Horse facilities worldwide, which provide more than 2,000 children – and even some adults – with equine therapy free of charge. The program begins with simple trail walking, but can take young riders as far as their capabilities or desires allow.
Parents or guardians are encouraged to participate as side-walkers for beginners, and are given tips to use on the home front which help build on positive momentum started in the program.
The new Texas County facility – the only one in southern Missouri – is scheduled to conduct its first 10-week session beginning in September and will then hold sessions every spring and fall. Spacek-Elseman figures that 60 percent of her clients will have some type of neurological issue, mostly involving some variation of autism.
“Spirit Horse prides itself on being free,” Spacek-Elseman said. “That was very important to me and it will be a big help to many people in this area who can benefit from what we have to offer. Autism falls into that gray area where many insurance companies won’t cover it and therapy costs for it are very high.”
Other disabilities the Spirit Horse program can benefit include (but are not limited to) cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. The list of clients interested in taking part in this year’s inaugural session features residents from all around the region, including Houston, Licking, Mountain View, Rolla, Willow Springs, Winona and West Plains.
“I had no idea how many families were affected by autism in this area,” Spacek-Elseman said, “because there are so many variations of it. If you didn’t know my kids had it, for example, you would probably just think they’re kind of quirky and they like numbers and patterns and shapes.
“But it’s not just about autism; the spectrum of disabilities that have been impacted by Spirit Horse is very wide.”
The fact that horses are involved means that the Spirit Horse program is not for everyone.
“You can’t force a kid to get on a horse,” Spacek-Elseman said. “But this really works for a lot of the ones who will. Every child loves a pony and this can be your gateway. Once they realize they can be in command of a horse, something clicks inside and they realize they can do other things on their own.”
One of the keys to the success of Spirit Horse’s techniques is the use of animals that require the focus and attention of the rider.
“In one of my first conversations with Charles, I told him I had foxtrotters,” Spacek-Elesman said. “He said, ‘no – the bumpier, the better.’ You want a rough, bumpy ride so the child has to use his brain and body to work to sit tall and balance in the saddle.
“The ideal horse is 10-plus years old, a retired performance or trail-riding horse and not gaited. But as far as the breed goes, Charles pretty much uses a smorgasbord of horse breeds.”
So far, six horses have been donated to Spirit Horse JC Ranch, including three from a trail ride facility in Hartshorn and two from a banker in Summersville. Also in the mix is a 14-year-old quarterhorse mare named Jasmine, a former hunter-jumper champion donated by Fletcher. Several more horses will likely be added as clientele increases, including some Shetlands or other small ponies.
Spacek-Elseman said plans are in place for her facility to also host equine therapy sessions for veterans. Known as Combat and Cowboy Boots, the program’s first session is scheduled to take place following the spring 2012 Spirit Horse session.
“It will be geared specifically toward veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury,” Spacek-Elseman said. “It’s a burden I have felt. We have thousands of soldiers coming home who are trained not to show weakness and they don’t want to sit in a therapist’s office.”
Some of the rooms in the arena are being converted into overnight accommodations for veterans and their families.
“That way they can stay for a week at a time,” Spacek-Elseman said, “because I don’t believe one-hour sessions once a week will accomplish what we’re trying to achieve with them.”
Combat and Cowboy Boots has not been officially advertised, but word about it has gotten out.
“I’ve had lots of calls about it just through word of mouth,” Spacek-Elseman said.
To cover operational costs and other expenses while continuing to offer free equine therapy services, Spirit Horse centers seek private grants and conduct fundraising events.
Spacek-Elseman and Spirit Horse JC have an ambitious fundraiser planned to kick off the facility’s inaugural 10-week session. A concert featuring nationally known country recording artist Jamey Johnson – whose single “In Color” reached the top-10 on the Billboard Magazine country chart in 2008 – is scheduled for Sept. 10 in the Highway 137 arena.
“We plan to sell about 5,000 tickets,” Spacek-Elseman said, “and we’ll sell it out. This is an artist a lot of people in this region will want to see.”
Spacek-Elseman and the rest Spirit Horse JC’s volunteer staff have teamed up with the Tyrone Volunteer Fire Department to introduce themselves and their huge indoor facility to the public in an event on Saturday, July 2.
From 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., planned activities include equine therapy demonstrations, games, a benefit barbecue and more. That night, more food will be available from 7:30 to 9 p.m. and the Illinois band Mad Hoss Jackson will play from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Tickets to the show will cost $5; veterans will be admitted free. A VIP package to the Jamey Johnson concert will be raffled off that will include front row seats, fan merchandise, food and beverage vouchers, and more.
“I want to emphasize to people that if you have a child or you know a neighbor or friend with a child who you think might benefit from this program to come and check us out on July 2nd,” Spacek-Elseman said. “We’re like a little-known secret going on here, but I know we can help a lot of people. Using Spirit Horse’s techniques, there have been dozens of children who have taken their first steps, spoken their first words and whose minds have been unlocked, so to speak, and who have gone on to live fuller lives.
“We’re here to provide that to the families of this area.”
Spacek-Elseman points out that Spirit Horse cannot absolutely guarantee positive results and that parents have a major responsibility in the development of a disabled child, even those who receive top-notch therapy.
“We’ll do everything possible,” she said, “but if you’re not going to encourage and support your child, you’re further handicapping them and you’re probably wasting our time and your own. This is a family commitment.”
With that commitment in place, the Spirit Horse concept comes down to that age-old fascination and connection kids have with horses.
“You can’t go wrong with a pony,” Spacek-Elseman said.