When Hannah Balmer, 17, isn’t scooting around in her wheelchair, she uses four legs. Since childhood, horses have played an invaluable role in Hannah’s life. Born with cerebral palsy, Hannah has gained tremendous benefits from horseback riding.
“Being able to ride a horse is an exceptional activity to someone with a physical handicap such as cerebral palsy,” says her father, Jim Balmer. “It’s really made a difference in her life, from an emotional as well as a physical standpoint.”
Recognizing the countless benefits that interaction with horses provides for the mentally and physically challenged, longtime horse instructor Cinnamon Ricker opened a therapeutic riding center called Spirit Ranch. This Denver-area nonprofit’s mission is to empower those who are physically, mentally, socially and economically disadvantaged by helping these individuals gain physical and emotional strength through horse interaction. While many therapeutic riding centers focus on one or two disadvantaged populations, Spirit Ranch reaches out to many populations, from abuse victims to those with disabilities to inner city children.
Ricker has worked with horses and taught clients throughout much of her life; she had her first student at age 14. “When I got into the horse world as a professional, I saw how the only people who really ride are healthy of body or healthy of checkbook, and I thought that wasn’t fair,” Ricker says. Spirit Ranch is a way she can “give back to the world at large for an industry that’s pretty much a luxury.”
The therapeutic ranch was founded in 2006, but remains in its start-up stage. Ricker is searching for a permanent home for the program, so she can offer facilities for handicapped clients, host multi-day camps, and provide activities for able-bodied siblings of therapeutic riders. Currently, Spirit Ranch hosts a day camp for autistic children from Creative Perspectives Inc.—an autism center that provides comprehensive services to families of kids with autism.
The center organizes two five-week summer camps, where the children spend one day at Spirit Ranch.
“Horseback riding is something the kids love—they really respond well to it,” says Creative Perspectives Director Gina Smith. “The momentum of the horse is really relaxing for them. Some of the kids actually lay forward on the horses, enjoying it from a sensory perspective.”
Last year 46 kids attended, ages six to 21.
There are a number of therapeutic benefits from horses that are both physical and emotional. “Children and adults who have felt disconnected because of a disability get to connect with this animal. It’s bigger than them, and it’s kind and soft. It’s very receptive to their energies,” Ricker says. “Physically, riding is strenuous—it works your flexibility, muscle tone and balance. Your sense of cooperation is enhanced because you have to use your body in concert with another creature that is moving a different way, which is really important for therapeutic kids.”
Balmer has noticed other significant benefits for his daughter, such as muscle relaxation and increased upper body tone. “When you ride a horse, it tends to send the same impulses up your spine that you would normally get from walking. So riding has the ability to keep nerve pathways open,” Balmer says. “People with cerebral palsy have very tight muscles and being on a horse helps to stretch those muscles while they’re having a good time.”
He also sees enhanced self-confidence in his daughter. “You have a person who doesn’t have a lot of control over what happens to them, now sitting on this 2,000-pound animal and making it go wherever they want it to,” Balmer says.
At Spirit Ranch, Ricker wants to have a horse rescue for abuse victims. “The process of helping another creature recover from abuse would be really therapeutic for the people who have been abused. It’s something I’ve always wanted to try,” she says.
Ricker also wants to incorporate non-horse related activities such as half-court basketball, a swimming pool and WiFi café so that siblings “don’t feel secondary to the child with special needs.”
Ricker will offer lessons to able-bodied riders that can happen at the same time as the therapeutic sessions. “[Cinnamon] is very good at what she does,” Balmer says. “She has a unique ability to relate to people—adults and kids of all ages—instilling in them some discipline to ride horses properly, while keeping it fun and rewarding.”