Healing Horses Therapeutic Riding Program embraces the wellness of others through equine-assisted therapy.

Amidst the serene backdrop of Missouri’s ranch land, equine therapy can go beyond traditional therapy and provide a physical and emotional connection between horses and riders.

“Therapeutic riding incorporates the use of a horse and equine-oriented activities to achieve physical, cognitive, emotional, and social benefits,” says Amy Decramer, director of the Healing Horses Therapeutic Riding Program based near Linn, Missouri.  

The physical work and emotional connection between horses and riders at Healing Horses provides a variety of benefits to the participants, both human and equine. Participants that Healing Horses sees the most include those with autism. People living with autism often face problems with physical touch, and the program allows them to create a loving bond with their horses, which can transfer into forming human relationships. 

“We mainly serve kids and adults with disabilities,” Amy says. “But, we also serve a variety of other people, such as kids in foster care, veterans, active military members, and stroke survivors; we even offer able-body lessons.” 

In one case, Amy recalls working with one child with cerebral palsy. 

“He had gone through multiple surgeries on his legs before entering the program, but since then, he’s had none,” Amy explains. “Riding stretches and warms the muscles in his legs to prevent scissoring and keeps him out of surgery. Plus, it’s much more appealing than the gym or physical therapy.” 

In another case, Amy had a particularly emotional experience of love and healing working with a child who had severe anger management issues that stemmed from a history of mental and physical abuse.

“He wasn’t good with the first two horses we tried, so we let him pick the third horse,” Amy says. “He chose this huge Percheron draft horse that hadn’t finished his training program to be ready to work with clients, so we started them both with groundwork.”  

“We mainly serve kids and adults with disabilities. But, we also serve a variety of other
people, such as kids in foster care, veterans, active military members, and stroke survivors…”

Amy Decramer, Director

It just so happened that learning about the horse’s own history of surviving abuse allowed the child to begin forming an emotional connection. 

 “One day we overheard him telling the horse, ‘I’ll never let anyone hurt you again,'” Amy says. “Then, he gradually started showing small signs of compassion in other areas of his life.” 

At Healing Horses, the program benefits more than just people. Many horses in the program have been rescued from abusive situations or kill pens, and several have special needs, such as sun sensitivity or a high tendency to founder (produce inflammation of the laminae in their feet). Others came to Healing Horses as donations. Once accepted into the program, the horses finally have a ranch to call home, and they receive quality care for the rest of their lives. 

Before allowing them to work with people, Amy and her staff put each horse through a thorough six-month training program.  

 “The training works on the many skills required when working with people with special needs of all kinds,” Amy says. “We work on desensitizing them with games that might cause a horse to spook, like basketball or baseball, or certain behaviors they might encounter from riders, like screaming or throwing fits. They all have to show mental and physical stability, sensitivity, and tolerance for people. They also must learn to stop when people start to fall.” 

Healing Horses staff members will work with a horse for up to a year before deciding it’s truly not suited for the program and rehoming it. However, the program has only had to rehome three horses so far — an astonishing success rate considering where some of the horses come from. 

“We rescued a pregnant mustang from a kill pen,” Amy says. “She had never been touched, but now both she and her daughter are part of the program. She was trained as part of our veterans’ program.” 

Their veterans’ program focuses on helping veterans and active-duty military members heal from and cope with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is the collaboration between the Healing Horses staff and the military veterans who volunteer with the program that allows veterans and military members to participate free of charge. 

Children in foster care can also participate in the therapeutic riding program at no charge. For other participants, the fees are still considerably less than paying for regular lessons, and there are scholarships for those who may still not be able to afford lessons. 

“The only other requirement for the therapeutic program is that participants must be cleared by a doctor,” Amy says. “There are some conditions that might make the physical activity involved in horseback riding dangerous, and certain tests like spinal X-rays may be required to make sure they can participate safely.” 

Aside from the standards of safety, Healing Horses provides assistance for all levels of ability — including ramps and lifts to help with mounting and dismounting as well as human assistance in the form of leaders, side walkers, and even back riders to sit behind the participant if necessary. Their goal is for participants to do as much as possible. 

This program, however,  would not be possible without help from the community. Healing Horses is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, so businesses who make contributions to them can get a 70 percent tax credit for donations, allowing them to control where their tax money goes. 

“We would like to continue to grow and expand the program, but we can’t sustain the program on lesson fees alone,” Amy says. “We rely on grants and donations to continue, but we would like to find a way to make it self-sustaining.