For Want of a Horse

Equestrian center works wonders for those who struggle

Ten years ago, when Nan Brooks brought her eleven-year-old daughter, Jenny, to Coral Gables pediatrician Warren Quillian 58C 61M 63MR, she told him of a discovery she had made. Jenny had been a premature baby and had developmental problems. Brooks had tried everything to motivate and teach her daughter, without notable results— until she began working with a charismatic special education teacher named Peggy Bass, whose specialty was horses.

Brooks and her husband got Jenny a horse, and the change in the girl was immediate and dramatic. She and her horse, Tex, developed a special relationship. Inspired, her mother suggested to Quillian that they consider starting an equestrian program for others like Jenny. The Brookses bought some pastureland near Homestead, and Quillian and the couple hired Bass, an equestrian professional with a PhD and nearly three decades of experience working with children.

Brooks, Quillian, and Bass then reached out to a small group of parents of children with autism and other developmental problems—all of whom were thrilled at the changes in their children after they had interacted with Peggy’s horses a time or two. The group sought funding from the state, as well as foundations, local banks, churches, and businesses; now a board of parents and friends and dozens of student volunteers help keep the center going.

A decade later, parents have seen dramatic improvements in the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional well-being of more than seven hundred children and adults who have participated in the program. Good Hope Equestrian Center, located in the Redlands, a rural community about fifteen miles south of Miami, has twenty acres of pasture including stables boarding twelve program horses, ten paddocks, two riding arenas, a sensory horse trail, and a clubhouse with two classrooms. Designed to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, all activities at Good Hope are accessible to physically disabled participants.

“Good Hope provides a broad array of on-site and community-based training programs,” says Bass. “We offer programming for disabled adults, personal care assistance, companion services, in-home support, supported employment, and therapeutic horseback riding throughout the year.”

Ana Pinilla is a seven-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. Her parents despaired of her ever being able to ride a bike or run. But after a few months of therapeutic riding lessons at Good Hope, Ana’s trunk stability, balance, and walking coordination have improved dramatically.

Another participant, Stephen Mosley, used to stay home all day with his elderly father. He didn’t do much—watched some TV, never saw anybody. His younger sister Paula, who works in a nursing home, knew he needed help. She heard about Good Hope and the remarkable changes their program was making with developmentally disabled individuals. Stephen is fifty-one, but is mentally like an eight-year-old.

Bass took Mosley into the program a few years ago, and today he is a different person. “Before, he couldn’t speak in sentences,” says Paula. “No socialization, limited functions, not much fun. He stuttered. He was shy around people.”

Now Mosley can’t wait to get to the ranch in the morning. “He is learning to read. He can write his name and address. He walks the horses and helps with the stables. He even rides,” his sister says. “He calls it his job.” Mosley’s latest interest: learning to use a computer.

And then there is Inaki Perez-Iturbe. Two years ago, at age three, he was diagnosed with autism. His parents, Luz and Guillermo Perez-Iturbe, both from Argentina, tried to conduct therapy with him. For a year, there wasn’t much improvement.

One day, while working as a volunteer at nearby Miami Zoo, Luz heard about Good Hope. That was a year ago. “When we arrived, everyone greeted us warmly,” Luz says. “Katie McCoy and some of the staff came out and embraced us. Before I knew what was happening, Inaki was on a horse! He’s learning about horses and riding from Katie. This place is magical for calming him down.” McCoy is an equine activity instructor certified through the professional PATH Association.

Although most of Good Hope’s participants are children, Bass recently started a project called Horses Helping Heroes to help injured veterans. “We are able to provide our injured servicemen and women the opportunity to strengthen their bodies, while healing their minds through the therapeutic effects of working with these horses,” Bass says.

Researchers are trying to discover what is so magic about pairing a person in pain with a horse. A yearlong study led by University of Miami psychologist Maria Llabre indicated that interaction with horses improved the functioning of disabled individuals significantly. The study, which is being published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, “shows considerable promise in improving the functioning of individuals with a broad range of disabilities,” Llabre says.

Warren Quillian has four grown children, including Emory alumna Rutledge Hutson 98MPH. He also has a nine-year-old granddaughter with Rett Syndrome. He and his wife, Sallie, spend considerable time in Durham, North Carolina, with their granddaughter.

“I am not what’s considered a horse person,” Quillian says wryly, “although I did play ‘broomstick’ polo as a teenager.”

But his experience with Good Hope has given him a broader perspective.

“In addition to what this program does for the children,” he says, “it’s what it does for the family. In most cases, the dramatic improvement of the handicapped child has also rejuvenated the whole family.”

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