Farm Horizons, February 2015

Making new kinds of strides

By Gabe Licht

Two little girls smile and giggle as they sit on the backs of horses and throw a beach ball back and forth to each other.

To them, they’re having fun during a riding lesson, but the experience is more than fun and games. It’s a hippotherapy session at True Strides on the True Friends Camp Courage campus in rural Maple Lake.

Hippotherapy is therapy that involves horses. An indoor arena at True Friends has allowed the True Strides hippotherapy programs to expand.

True Friends and True Strides representatives cut the ribbon on the new, near-12,000-square-foot arena in October and new staff there has hit the ground running since.

Leading the new staff is director Shari Mangas, who previously operated Sharadise Therapeutics Foundation. She has been an occupational therapist for 30 years and has been involved with horses for about 25 years.

“I’ve always wanted, once I had my first horse, to use horses with therapy,” Mangas said. “I found out you can get certified to do that as an occupational therapist through the American Hippotherapy Association.”

So, that’s what Mangas did, using an indoor arena at her farm for hippotherapy sessions.

Many of those clients have followed her to the True Strides program. Currently, the program serves about 25 clients, with the capacity to serve 100 clients, Mangas said.

Many of the clients have sensory processing disorder or are on the autism spectrum.

“It’s just amazing how, neurologically, the movement can change their brains and bodies,” Mangas said of those with SPD.

One client in particular used to be nearly bent in half when she walked. Now, she stands and walks much taller.

Autistic clients are also seeing the benefits.

“It’s very effective with (clients with) autism because, as they’re riding, research shows their whole brain lights up more so they’re better able to focus,” Mangas said. “They’re having fun and, when they’re having fun, their brain releases serotonin, which is the good chemical to build new brain pathways. They may not be able to focus with their eyes but, when we get them on the horse, they’re suddenly focusing.”

Hippotherapy is also helping clients improve their behavior.

“It’s really neat because they’re so motivated to want to ride the horse so we can expect more out of them and they give it to us,” Mangas said. “Once we find out where they’re at, we can start inhibiting some of the behaviors by telling them, ‘This is what we expect.’ It’s self-motivating because they feel good about themselves. Their parents start seeing they can expect more out of them, too.”

Mangas would like to work with more clients with multiple sclerosis.

“The MS client I have now is making really great strides and tells me what a difference it is making in her body,” Mangas said. “Her doctor can already see the difference in her strength just after a couple months. We want to do research on her and the changes so we can find an organization that will promote scholarships for individuals with MS to come.”

Mangas is looking forward to helping veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder through the Save a Warrior program, which will take place in May.

“It’s a five-day, intensive course,” Mangas said. “They use rope courses, equine therapy, meditation, art, etc. It’s an experiencial process of working through the PTSD. They’ll build strong bonds and continue with those relationships afterward.”

In addition to general therapy sessions and the Save a Warrior program, True Strides will continue to be integrated into the True Friends camp experience.

“We will still be having what’s called horsing around,” Mangas said. “The kids get to come pet the horses and learn parts of the horse, care of the horse, they’ll do art projects around the horses and they’ll be riding.”

Some campers will also have the opportunity to take part in a horse clinic, which will include a horse show to exhibit their skills and improvement for their parents.

Leading up to camp season, True Strides staff is working on a schedule to accommodate both campers and clients.

“We’ve been talking about how we’re going to make this all work,” Mangas said. “We’ll be adding staff. Some of my ladies have been with me quite a while and one will head up horsing around.”

True Strides will be looking for reliable volunteers, with a kick off and training day in May.

Mangas also looks to offer internships.

“This is an opportunity for young people in the community who are interested in occupational therapy, physical therapy, veterinary, special education, or anything like that and spend time volunteering and getting a lot of cool experience,” Mangas said. “I use them right alongside me doing therapy.”

True Strides serves clients from Montrose to Sartell and many places in between.

To learn more about True Strides, visit www.truefriends.org/true-strides or call Mangas at (952)-852-0101 ext. 306 or (763)-360-4117.

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