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Equine-assisted therapy impacts children, families and instructors

Ms. Bustamante and a Funies volunteer guide Victor Nuñez, 4, during his therapeutic lesson. Photo by Andrea Edde.






By Andrea Edde 

Read in Miami Herald

Michael Fuentes is a 14-year-old boy with Cerebral Palsy, ADHD, developmental disabilities, autistic behaviors and a basically useless right hand. But that doesn’t stop him from holding Oreo, the horse, with both hands while in therapy at Good Hope Equestrian Training Center.

With only a couple of months of horse therapy, Andrea Fuentes, his mother, is pleased with the changes she has seen in Michael.

“His balance has improved, his legs are stronger and he is much more focused,” said Fuentes, 52. “It has also helped his self-esteem as he is very proud of his progress.”

Good Hope Equestrian Training Center, located at 22155 SW 147th Ave. in Miami, is accredited with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, which provides the center with credibility and promotes excellence.

Special needs children struggle to understand how their bodies work in relation to the world around them.  Equine-assisted [horse] therapy helps these children gain muscle strength, self-confidence and social skills.

The place and the people give a sense of peace, Betty Joyce, a volunteer at GHETC, said.

“When the children are on the horse, they are set free,” Joyce said. “It becomes their passion.”

Joyce, 61, started volunteering at GHETC in 2007.

Having a strong connection with Peggy Bass, the executive director, Joyce joined the board of directors shortly after.

With 14 horses to care for, a year-round adult school program, annual events, and more than 400 people that ride per year, Bass is always on the run.

“Sometimes you have to stay up the whole night taking care of a horse,” said Bass, 46. “But the next day you make it through because of the joy and laughter of the riders.”

Bass, who has a Ph.D. in special education, keeps up with the latest studies and information about the effects of horse therapy on all types of people.

She emphasizes the benefits of this type of therapy for any individual with disabilities.

“Research has proven that equine-assisted therapy helps with balance, posture, coordination, motor skills and concentration,” Bass said.

Drew Coman, University of Miami Ph.D. graduate in clinical child psychology, who has investigated the effects of equine-assisted therapy on children with different disabilities, agrees.

“Equine therapy serves as a beneficial vehicle, which requires a lot of stimulation for the children,” said Coman, 29, who recently completed an article on the topic where he primarily conducted the research and data analysis. “The data did reveal improvement in social and sensory interaction.”

According to the Autism Speaks organization, one in 88 children are autistic in the United States, making autism the fastest-growing serious developmental disability.

Two other ranches in South Florida that offer horse therapy to special needs children are the Davie Ranch foundation and Funies foundation.

The Davie Ranch foundation is located at 5600 SW 61st Ave. in Davie.

Edwin Melendez, owner and founder of the Davie Ranch foundation, is a two-time Hodgkin lymphoma cancer survivor. Today, he remains cancer-free and is giving back to the community.

“Being able to do all this with the horses is beyond what words are able to communicate,” Melendez, 43, said.

Although Melendez runs his own multimedia company to help sustain the Davie Ranch foundation, he stops by after work to see the kids.

Melendez has witnessed cases in which the children break out of their comfort zone and vocalize for the first time in their lives.

“You definitely see the results. It’s almost as if the horses know something is up and it’s amazing the way they act,” said Melendez. “It’s just a magical experience.”

Samantha Cossin, 22, is the head instructor at the Davie Ranch foundation.

With a B.A. in neuroscience from Florida Atlantic University, she is able to target specific areas of the child’s brain through the riding exercises.

Cossin started helping her former instructor on the weekends at the barn she used to ride. Today, she instructs three special needs students who attend therapy every Friday.

“Helping children with special needs taught me the true importance of unconditional love,” Cossin said. “Horses don’t care if you’re tall, fat, white, black, have ADHD, autism or anything else. If you love them, they will love you in return.”

The Davie Ranch foundation works with organizations such as the James Jones Legacy Foundation to plan events to give children the opportunity to interact with the horses.

“We sent a group of campers to ride horses at the Davie Ranch and they had a very enjoyable experience,” said Alina Soto, development director at the James Jones Legacy Foundation.

The same happens at Funies foundation, where every Saturday, Sheila Ramer notices improvement in her autistic daughter, Sarah.

Sarah Ramer, 28, has attended therapeutic horseback riding lessons since she was 4 years old, but has greatly advanced after she joined Funies about a year ago.

“When Sarah is on Goldie, the horse, she has no autistic tendencies,” said Ms. Ramer, 66. “I see a calmness in her.”

Funies foundation, located at 4700 SW 160th Ave. in Southwest Ranches, is a non-profit organization dedicated to help, integrate and instruct special children.

It was established in 2008 with the idea to properly train special needs children in order for them to participate in the equine sector of the Special Olympics.

Rosalinda Bustamante and Luis Bustamante, owners and founders of the Funies foundation, have been able to instruct and improve the lives of many children.

“The change you see in the children is amazing,” Ms. Bustamante, 52, said. “Some kids come here with no speech, and by the third session, they start saying, ‘Mommy, Mommy, look at me’.  It is a feeling I can’t explain.”

Isabella Izquierdo, the psychologist at Funies, has been treating special needs kids there for more than two and a half years.

Izquierdo, 28, graduated in psychology from the University of Miami and completed two master’s degrees in Barcelona, Spain, one in clinical and health psychology and another in early childhood intervention.


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