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Horse Therapy Helps Children And Adults

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Posted: Friday, October 4, 2019 4:10 pm

On a recent Saturday morning Alessandra Wissmiller, 9, was getting ready to ride a quarter horse named Magic at a horse ranch on Hollister Street.

Her mother Adrianna tells the story how Alessandra didn’t start speaking until she was 3 years old and was always infatuated with horses despite the fact that no one in her family rode them. Alessandra doesn’t ride just for fun, she has a disability, and started doing horse therapy at an early age. When her family moved to San Diego from Northern California six months ago they found horse therapy was available at San Diego Therapeutic Horsemanship, a not-for-profit organization. She found Ainslie Kraeck, who runs Sand Diego Therapeutic Horsemanship, through PATH International which stands for Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship.

“It helped emotionally… she has built a bond with the horse and she has a friend. It helps her focus and it’s huge for her confidence and her speech. Academically it’s tough [for her], but with horse riding, she’s good at it,” said Wissmiller.

Kraeck has seen many changes in her students over the many years she has been teaching. “The only time these kids get looked at is when they are on top of a horse,” said Kraeck. “It builds confidence. I wish more kids could be able to participate.”

As Alessandra was getting ready to mount her horse she was excited. “It’s awesome. I love it,” she shared. Her favorite thing to do is learning new skills and she looks forward to her weekly sessions.

Kraeck, who is a retired U.S. Navy officer, grew up loving and riding horses. At every duty station she looked for a place to ride because she always found immediate friends. In he 1990s when she was stationed in Florida, she found horse therapy. At first she was a volunteer and then she became an instructor. “When I retired I went to an advanced training course in Texas,” she explained.

Kraeck now certifies other instructors. She said there are about 6,000 of them, all over the world including South Korea, Israel and France.

Kraeck explained that there are a few centers like hers that offer horse therapy in San Diego. “We work collaboratively. We all know each other. It’s a small profession. We’re the only one down here,” she said.

Other centers are in Lakeside, Ramona, Fallbrook and Oceanside. “There is a need down here [in South Bay]. The information from the last census said that the area with the most disabilities is south of I-8 because there are more people. This center started in the east county but when I took it over I moved it here,” she said.

Many of the children Kraeck and her instructors work with have autism and they have seen significant improvement with focus and socialization. Over the years Kraeck has seen many adults as well as children come through her program. “We do a veteran’s Program called Freedom Reins and have worked with them for four years. We have a five week curriculum and we don’t charge. Sometimes we get funding from the VA other than that we rely on donations,” she said.

Many of the veterans Kraeck has worked with include amputees, some have traumatic brain injuries and PTSD. “Injury and PTSD are the most common. Riding brings them to the present. You have to be present, in the moment. Horses are big calming animals, even just standing next to a horse helps. With vets we emphasize communication and trust, teamwork and bonding as well as riding,” said Kraeck.

Kraeck has seen many breakthroughs in the 20 years she has worked in this field. “I have had children say their first word. With veterans we see them so isolated when they come to us and their eyes are down. It’s wonderful to see them lift their heads up, start joking with one another… and they have to make eye contact with their horses,” she explained.

Some of the comments veterans have made have stuck with Kraeck. She recalls one of them saying, “My horse has scars, my horse is just like me, kind of grumpy. I have scars. We both know we have to go on.”

Alessandra’s therapy session was done under the watchful eye of PATH instructor Evelyn Myers, Francesca Buitenkant, also a PATH instructor, and Myer’s daughter Elyssa. “The certification takes almost a year between tests, workshops and hours of teaching,” explained Buitenkant.

Myers said she loves to help the kids have a relationship with their horses and feel they can control them. In the process the kids get stronger and more coordinated. “It’s nice to see the progress and the bond they form with their horses,” she said.

IB resident Mariano Uribe had driven his son Salvador, 13, on his motorcycle for a therapy session after Alessandra’s. His other son, who is 15, also does horse therapy. “The whole program has helped him a lot. When he misses one session you can tell, it’s night and day,” said Uribe.

His son has autism and by the Thursday before his session Salvador already gets his things organized, ready for going to the ranch. “He benefits from it and he enjoys it. I highly recommend it for whoever has kids with disabilities whatever they may be…it’s the discipline, not just about riding. It makes them feel confident,” he said.

Kraeck who has dedicated herself to the program, said she took a leap of faith in trying something new after her retirement, but it was already in the cards for her. “As soon as I started [volunteering] I knew I’d do this after I retired,” she said.

As a not-for-profit, San Diego Therapeutic Horsemanship is funded by donations. The annual fundraiser “Rock “N Roll at the Ranch” is a concert that will take place on Sunday, Oct. 20, from 11:30 a.m to 3 p.m. at Driftwood Ranch, 2191 Hollister Street. Music, food raffles, games and tours will be part of the program. Tickets are $20 and children under 12 are free. For more information log on to www.sdtherahorse.org or call 619-431-5284.

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