Healing power is seen in horseback therapy
By JOHN CARLSON
DES MOINES REGISTER COLUMNIST
June 12, 2005
Guthrie Center, Ia. - Cindy McCarty was in the riding arena, explaining what a half hour on horseback can do for an injured person facing life in a wheelchair. Or a sick child. Or an elderly man impaired by a stroke.
Interesting, I told her. But this horse-riding therapy thing sounds, forgive me, like a load of hocus-pocus.
McCarty smiled and pointed to the door a few feet away. Dan Tallman was walking in, ready for his half hour of therapy.
The 28-year-old Tallman said he was told after an accident four years ago that he'd never walk again.
"I was working construction and fell off a roof and then the trusses fell on me," he said. "I was paralyzed from the chest down. That was supposed to be it."
Tallman broke off the conversation and, with the help of a wheeled walker, moved up a ramp and climbed onto the back of a Missouri fox trotter named Jewels.
Nobody here calls this a miracle. A miracle involves divine intervention or an unexplainable event.
Tallman's ability to walk makes perfect sense to the people at Timber Creek Therapies, a privately owned campus on 220 acres of gorgeous Guthrie County countryside. The therapists here have seen this sort of thing before.
"We've had great success with children with cerebral palsy, spina bifida and autism, stroke victims, patients with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's," said McCarty, who opened this facility four years ago with her husband, Bill.
There's an exercise room, a state-of-the-art heated "wave pool" that allows injured patients to heal faster than anyone ever imagined. There is speech and cognitive therapy and, of course, the horses.
The animals' ability to help bring such remarkable results is through equine-assisted therapy - more commonly known as "hippotherapy."
It's not new. It's just nontraditional. And proven.
Research has shown that the movement of a horse is nearly identical to that of a walking human. The patient is placed on the horse, just forward of the animal's pelvis. The horse is walked around an arena by trained therapists. Its gait provides a stimulus that allows the rider to improve balance, coordination and strength.
Hippotherapy - hippos is the Greek word for horse - has been used in Europe since an outbreak of polio after World War II. It gradually has become more acceptable to medical professionals in the United States.
"I won't say it's magic," said Dr. Jill Meilahn, a Des Moines pediatric rehabilitation specialist who has referred patients to Timber Creek Therapies. "I can't say all kids benefit more than they would have otherwise. But I'm impressed with the results I've seen. I've referred cerebral palsy and spina bifida patients there who have posture, trunk strength and balance issues. The horses have been very effective."
Leonard and Eileen Goodrich of Linden are believers. Leonard, 77, suffered a stroke on Jan. 30. His motor skills were largely unaffected, but doctors told him he was unlikely to regain his ability to speak, he faced confusion, and he wouldn't be able to continue farming.
"They said he should go to a nursing home," said Eileen. "I said no, I'd heard about this place and we started coming right after he got out of the hospital. We're going to be eating sweet corn he planted in a couple of months."
McCarty said Leonard Goodrich's memory has improved and, while on horseback, he follows three-step verbal directions.
Touch your elbow, the therapist tells him. Raise your arms. Touch your knee. He does it without a second's hesitation.
"I never thought that was possible," said Eileen, sitting alongside Leonard in the speech therapy room after his ride.
This place is here, in the hills between Guthrie Center and Panora, because McCarty saw a need and had the opportunity to make it happen.
"I grew up in Guthrie Center, married my high school sweetheart, and this area is our home," she said. "I've had cancer twice, I lost my brother in a terrible accident, our house burned down. So I've been through some things. I'm a licensed therapist and decided this was something I could do. I started sketching things out."
The McCartys bought the property 10 years ago and started working on building a first-class therapy center. Money was a problem, because most lenders couldn't imagine that such a facility in rural Iowa could be successful.
The money finally came, the therapy center was built and they hired a group of Amish men from Bloomfield to build the barn.
"I said all along we'd have the patients," Cindy McCarty said. "I was right. We're busy all day, every day. We see patients from 28 counties and it's all been word-of-mouth and referrals. We've had patients referred to us from a lot of doctors, from the Mayo Clinic and from the Craig Institute (a spine injury center) in Denver."
Timber Creek therapy center is also Medicare- and Medicaid- approved. Wellmark and some other insurance companies also pay for patient treatment.
A nonprofit entity, Timber Creek Charities, was established to accept donations to help defray costs of patients who are not covered by insurance.
Bob Patterson of Griswold does whatever it takes to see to it that his wife, Michelle, gets the therapy here.
"She's had MS since 1982," Patterson said. "We've tried different things. At one point she was just sitting there in a wheelchair with her head flopped over. It was terrible. They told us to try the horses and I thought, 'Well, OK,' but we did. There wasn't much left to try."
Michelle walked into the arena and climbed onto Sunny, a Tennessee walking horse, the breed that has the proper gait for an MS patient.
The 43-year-old woman laughed and talked with the therapists who led Sunny in a wide circle.
"We started coming here two years ago," said her husband.
"After riding the horse and getting in the pool, she always leaves feeling better and walking better than when we came in the door. The doctors are pretty amazed. They tell us that whatever we're doing is working and we should keep doing it. We will."
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