Horse Sense

When Robin Bowman gets a notion to start something, wild horses can't stop her. In fact, for the idea she's exploring right now, the horses could only help. They're part of her equestrian equation, a striking symmetry that's hard to resist.

Here's the equation: Colorado prisoners tame wild horses in need of adoption. As it happens, horses can play a key role in the physical and emotional therapy of severely disabled children, and, for reasons Bowman can expound on at length, formerly wild horses are particularly well-suited to the task. Using the inmate-trained horses for such therapy would give the felons a sense of having contributed something tangible to society, provide the horses with a good home and help a bunch of kids.

That's the way Bowman sees it, anyway. Of course, she adds, there are still plenty of details to work out. "We're still in the beginning stages of talking about this," she says. "But I want to do whatever I can to make it work."

A physical therapist, Bowman is also the president of the Pegasus Program, a nonprofit organization based at Normandy Farms in Littleton. Launched in 1996, Pegasus provides what is known as "hippo-therapy" to people with various disabilities--autistic children, head-injured adults, stroke victims, people with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Down syndrome and so on.

Bowman first learned about hippo-therapy several years ago, while working around horses and attending physical-therapy classes in Tennessee. The field developed from research on the similarities in the way humans and horses walk, including comparable gait and hip rotation. If a person lacks the usual range of physical movement because of a birth defect, injury or neurological disorder, putting that person on top of a horse can help "teach the muscles what normal movement feels like," Bowman says.

The goal is not to become a champion rider; some Pegasus clients require a volunteer to accompany them on the horse, helping them to crawl or sit, while other volunteers serve as spotters below. But participants say the therapeutic benefits of placing a disabled child on a moving horse can be remarkable.

"The little girl I work with cannot sit up by herself," says volunteer Katharine Middleton. "It's difficult for her to hold her head up. But when she's up there, she laughs and shrieks and throws her head back. Her arms and legs start to relax and straighten out the longer she's on the horse. It's incredible to watch the metamorphosis."

"It's the only treatment that I know of," Bowman says, "that moves through three dimensions--and my hands are still completely free to facilitate the therapy."

She adds, "The other huge reason that it works is that it's fun. In an hour, they get so much therapy they don't realize they're getting."

Bowman believes that, in addition to helping with muscle training and relaxation, exposure to "all the sensory stuff" surrounding horses aids some clients with their breathing; it also helps to soothe the hyperactive cases and stimulate the withdrawn. "I've had a parent of an autistic child tell me she wants her child treated on Monday because then she's still doing well at school on Wednesday," she says. "She's calmer and can focus in class."

Most of the Pegasus clients have one-hour sessions each week, paid for by their health insurance. Donations help to defray the program's other costs, including the horses' boarding fees, veterinary and farrier bills, and scholarships for the uninsured. At present Pegasus has seven horses (including two leased from Normandy), a host of volunteers and a growing waiting list of applicants. If Pegasus had more horses, Bowman says, the program could accommodate more children.

One possible source of horseflesh is the pool of wild mustangs rounded up across the West each year by the federal Bureau of Land Management. For the past twelve years the BLM has shipped hundreds of horses to Canon City, where they're roped, saddled and broken by state prisoners. The Colorado Department of Corrections' program, one of the oldest of its kind in the country, has attracted international attention; the program claims a lower-than-average recidivism rate among its inmates, who learn some cowboying skills as well as the value of hard work, and the gentled horses are quickly snatched up for adoption.

To date the DOC has saddle-trained more than 5,000 mustangs, which are adopted at a cost of about $1,000 each. (The BLM charges a $125 adoption fee for each horse, and the DOC collects several hundred dollars more for the cost of breaking and feeding the animal over several months.) The program has been so successful that it has become virtually self-sustaining, requiring no taxpayer support.

Although the idea of combining mustangs and disabled children may seem bizarre, Bowman says the BLM horses, once gentled, can be better candidates for therapeutic work than many domestic horses. She's had experience with four BLM adoptees herself, including her personal mount, Convict, a three-year-old gelding.

"Every one of those mustangs have had the most laid-back attitude," she says. "Not only do they tend to be young and healthy and easy keepers, they have more of a respect for people's space. Domestic horses, even those with good manners, will walk right over you. But the mustangs we've worked with step more carefully."

Ideally, Bowman says, she'd like to work out a relationship with the DOC that would permit not only the adoption of horses into the Pegasus program but also the development of a specialized training program. Bowman suggests that inmates could condition the horses to be more accustomed to being around loud noises and wheelchairs, "balls and toys and kids who scream and kick and sit crooked" --in short, to get the mustangs "sacked out" so that they don't spook easily.

At the moment, though, such talk is putting the cart before the horse. Pegasus officials have had some preliminary discussion with the DOC about joining forces, but nothing definite has been addressed.

"We don't know if it's feasible or not," says DOC spokeswoman Liz McDonough. "We're waiting for them to send us more information, and that's as far as it's gone."

Bowman is hopeful that something can be arranged. "I'm willing to work out what is most beneficial to us, the BLM and the DOC," she says. "Their benefit is in having the inmate gentle the horse, knowing the horse is going to help children with disabilities."

While there's no shortage of demand for the BLM horses, volunteer Middleton notes that the adoption program hasn't always worked as designed. Last year a major Associated Press series revealed that some horses slated for adoption had actually ended up being sold to slaughterhouses. That's all the more reason, she argues, for trying to find a place for them in a program like Pegasus.

"Here are horses that don't necessarily have a place to go, sometimes because they're the wrong color," Middleton says. "I don't think anyone in a therapy program will give a damn about that."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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