A healing effect at BraveHearts in Harvard
HARVARD – Ruth Dewitt, 52, enjoyed riding horses when she lived in McHenry.
Stricken with Huntington's disease, she is currently a patient at the Amberwood Care Center in Rockford. Hospice staff usually visits about twice a week for extra care.
"We put an emphasis on quality of life," said Kaitlyn Henderson, communication manager for Passages Hospice, which has offices in Lisle and Rockford.
In the past year, Dewitt's disease has advanced significantly, Henderson said. She has some fairly "bad" days, when she's very sad about her condition and doesn't seem to enjoy life very much. Horses are the one thing that raises her spirits.
"We took her on a visit to see horses last year and she really enjoyed it," Henderson said. "Our nurse shows her pictures from her stable visit last year and she seems to perk up a bit."
Dewitt is now participating in the equine therapy program at BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding & Educational Center in Harvard.
She had her fourth visit to BraveHearts recently, and she is scheduled for four more. Passages Hospice drives her from her nursing home in Rockford via transport van.
A special lift is used to get her on the horse, and a special saddle helps her sit up straight.
The horse she rides is named Tali, one of about 25 horses BraveHearts has in Harvard and its second therapeutic horseback riding facility in Poplar Grove.
Dewitt rides Tali every session and knows him by sight now. BraveHearts volunteers help Dewitt guide the horse around the inside ring and work on stop-go and turn commands.
After her first lap around he ring, Dewitt laughed, and shouted "woo-hoo!"
"Go Ruthie!" said one of her nurses.
BraveHearts founder Marge Gunnar of Hinsdale said the facility serves a handful of hospice patients. BraveHearts has 100 clients a week, ranging from children with a variety of handicaps to military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Equine therapy provides "a sense of empowerment," Gunnar said. "A sense of self-confidence that builds in people. It's a very powerful, powerful thing."
"The horses's movement simulates human ambulation," she said. "If you take an individual who has very limited ability to ambulate – to walk – and you put them on a horse, the horse's movement is actually very similar to their walking – human ambulation. So it's the movement of the horse that is simulating human ambulation.
"It also helps develop cognition, awareness, alertness, the ability to conentrate a little bit more because you have to think about what your horse is doing while you're riding," Gunnar said.
"From an emotional point of view, think about an individual who has spent most of his life looking up from a wheelchair. You put them on a horse and suddenly they're the ones looking down."
Another plus? A horse doesn't ask questions.
"You don't have to explain yourself to a horse," Gunnar said. "It doesn't need to know what's going on in your body, your heart and your mind. They're just there. That has a very peaceful, healing effect," Gunnar said.
"Particularly with our veterans, who come out of a clinical setting where they're constantly having to answer questions, constantly having to explain themselves to therapists or nurses or clinicians. Bringing them into a non-clinical, very holistic setting has a very powerful effect on their mind set."
Gunnar said BraveHearts has the largest therapeutic riding program in the U.S. for veterans. In 2011, BraveHearts saw 193 individual veterans and gave 1,108 equine therapy sessions.
"We've had tremendous results with individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder," Gunnar said. "Some of them have said this has been a life-changing experience for them.
"I had a female veteran who came and did a retreat with us who came up and hugged me and said, 'You saved my life.'" She was referring to the program, that healing process that she felt in a very calm, peaceful setting, and being able to interact with these beautiful animals."
Donors to the nonprofit BraveHearts Corp. include veterans groups, several American Legions and VFWs. "The Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs is a huge supporter," Gunnar said.
Donations also come from private sources and grants, including a grant from the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois.
Entertainer Betty White will be doing a fund-raiser for BraveHearts Aug. 18 in Hinsdale. "She's a very close friend, a big supporter – she supports one of our horses – and has been very generous to us," Gunnar said.
BraveHearts also is supported by about 100 volunteers.
Staff includes a recreation therapist who is also a certified advanced level certified riding instructor. In its hippotherapy program there are licensed clinical, physical occupational and speech/language therapists.
"All of our instructors are certified therapeutic riding instructors. Our president, Meggan Hill-McQueeney, is one of fewer than 50 master level instructors in the country," Gunnar said.
"Our site in Poplar Grove is actually a speech/language clinic," she said. "Although it is a horse facility, we have an outpatient clinic there. Hippotherapy, using the horse as a platform for the therapy, is there, but we can also to other outpatient therapies that don't involve equines.
BraveHearts has come a long way since the riding program began in 2003.
"The program started out as such a small program. We never envisioned the fact that we'd be able to help as many people as we have," Gunnar said.
"My smile is not for what we're doing. My smile is for what they're accomplishing – those clients who come to us with such great need. It's a matter of joy for what we see our riders, our clients being able to accomplish."
For Ruth Dewitt, visiting BraveHearts helped improve her quality of life. And because she once had horses, the memories, nostalgia, connection to her past was very life affirming for her, Henderson said.
"In a way, she's able to grasp bits of her past life," Henderson added. "For Ruth, that means connecting with horses again. So we're doing our best to give her that experience."
Get more info:
Bravehearts Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center is located at 7319 Maxon Road, Harvard. Phone: 815-943-8226
BraveHearts at The Bergmann Centre is located at 4950 Route 173, Poplar Garove. Phone: 815-765-2113