Horses are amazing. They have different personalities, temperaments, talents and skills. Some work the land or the track, and some of them work in the healing arts—like the Haflingers, Irish cobs, Icelandic horses and draft ponies at Upside Therapeutic Riding.
We don’t teach grooming or horsemanship skills. We’re not teaching anybody how to ride our horses. We are using the movement of the horse to facilitate a functional outcome.
– Kim Wheatley
Located on a farm in eastern Jefferson County, Kim Wheatley established Upside as a nonprofit organization in 2008. A pediatric physical therapist, her career was inspired by her daughter, Alexandra, who was born 30 years ago with Down syndrome and multiple heart defects.
“She and I spent the first 18 months of her life on and off at Kosair. She was very sick,” Wheatley said. A few short years later, her sister-in-law, who was a hunter jumper, invited them to her farm. “We put my daughter on this pony, and she began to vocalize and wave to people and it was like a light switch,” Wheatley said. “She became another person when she was on this pony.”
In physical therapy school, Wheatley learned about hippotherapy (from the Greek word hippos, meaning horse) and knew she had found her calling, to be able to have a positive impact on other special-needs kids and help them as much as her own daughter had been helped through equine-assisted therapy.
Funded by grants, Upside Therapeutic Riding purchases young horses from all over the United States and trains them for specific therapies. Each horse has to have an even, symmetrical gait, for one thing. “You can't put a child with a disorganized central nervous system on a horse that will be even more disorganizing to the child,” Wheatley said. “I’m pretty adamant about that.”
The hippotherapy horses at Upside stand no taller than 13.2 hands and they aren’t shod. The equine handlers and therapists don't use a bridle and bit, but work off a rope halter, verbal commands and body cues using natural horsemanship techniques (yes, like horse whisperers). “We don't teach grooming or horsemanship skills,” she said. “We're not teaching anybody how to ride our horses. We are using the movement of the horse to facilitate a functional outcome.”
Hippotherapy helps children improve physically and emotionally. Physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists can be licensed in hippotherapy. “We can’t see anybody over 90 pounds,” Wheatley said of the mounted therapy program, so that means the children are typically ages 3 to 12. There’s no indoor arena so the terrain of the farm and fresh air of the great outdoors are the only setting and environment for each individual therapy session.
“Horses can have such an incredible impact on many populations,” Wheatley said. In addition to working with children, Upside offers Veterans Reins of Recovery, an equine-assisted psychotherapy program for military veterans with PTSD. Wheatley and her staff have collaborated with Robley Rex VA Medical Center since 2015 to develop this 8-week program for veterans, with each week’s specific curriculum building on the last. Upside was the first in this area to offer equine-assisted therapy to veterans.
“Our certified equine specialists really understand the psychology and nature of the horse; otherwise it's pointless,” Wheatley said. Her certified equine specialists must have a minimum of 6,000 hours of equine experience and certification through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. “Some certification programs don't require any equine experience at all, which is terrifying to me,” she said.
At Upside Therapeutic Riding, non-mounted programming is successful with adults and children. They are not sitting on top of a horse but are in close proximity. “We are going to be moving toward more non-mounted equine-assisted therapy services,” she said.
And just why are horses such great therapy animals? They have survived for millennia as prey animals and are acutely in tune with their surroundings. “They live in the moment. They don't judge,” Wheatley said.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To make a donation and to learn more about the equine-assisted therapy programs, visit upsidetherapeuticriding.org. Upside will also be part of Give for Good Louisville on Sept. 17.