HOFFMAN — Round and around the arena they went, two little boys sitting erect on two brown horses still wearing their shaggy winter coats: 5-year-old Jeffery on Blackjack and 4-year-old Garrett on JJ.
At the boys’ commands of “Walk on” and “Whoa,” Blackjack and JJ started and stopped, started and stopped, circling a sandy floor strewn with hula hoops and orange cones to help the boys practice using their reins.
“This has been one of the best interventions he’s ever had,” Jeffery’s mother, Anna, said as she watched her son from behind the arena fence. “We tried swimming. He’d just kind of float.
“Before he did this … he would not participate in (other kinds of) therapy. He would just sit on my lap and cry.”
On Tuesday, Jeffery was sassy and playful.
The lessons at Prancing Horse Center outside Hoffman help Jeffery, Garrett and nearly 100 other clients build not only confidence but core body strength and muscle control, something many lack because of disease, disability or trauma.
Riders’ ailments may range from congenital spinal or musculature conditions to autism or military-incurred injuries. (The Daily Journal will use only first names here to prevent breaches of privacy regulations.) And they may receive other therapies: occupational, physical or speech.
But there’s something about a horse.
Oh, not always from the get-go. It took Garrett four or five sessions to warm up to JJ, a pony-sized Icelandic horse, said Garrett’s mother, Cynthia — “he wouldn’t even get near JJ.”
“It definitely is a big feat (for Garrett) to be up higher like that” on JJ’s back, Cynthia said. Because Garrett’s walk is unsteady, he sometimes hunkers down when he doesn’t feel stable.
But on JJ, he sits erect, two volunteers holding his ankles above the stirrups and another guiding the horse.
Instructor Claire Pollard is one of two paid workers at Prancing Horse. The other is general manager Judy Lewis, whose husband, Bill, is chairman of the board of the 34-year-old concern. On Tuesday, Bill Lewis was shoveling manure. Needs must.
Prancing Horse began in Cameron. After the owner of the farm retired her interest in it, Prancing Horse leased three farms scattered around Moore County. It bought its current, 30-acre site near Hoffman in August 2016. By October, it was offering lessons. (During recent meetings with state Commerce Department representatives, Hoffman officials listed Prancing Horse as an asset for the town.)
“(The farm)’s the perfect size,” said Pollard, who mucks about in crusty boots amid the horse stalls and barn cats.
There are 11 horses, all of which are volunteered by owners who aren’t riding them for a while. (They’re off at college or some such.) When they’re not being prepared for or ridden during lessons, the horses spend their days in the pasture.
“We look for horses that are mostly calm and laid back,” Pollard said. Some horses have been shown, but many show horses would be too finicky for such work. Most Prancing Horse animals are older. One is a rescued Amish draft horse.
The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship sets training and operational guidelines for the center. (Despite the repeated use of the word “therapeutic,” Pollard says “adaptive” is more to the point and the term gaining widespread credibility.)
Clients come from mostly Moore County, although some from Richmond are on the waiting list. The reach of the Prancing Horse also extends to Montgomery, Hoke and Cumberland counties.
Riders don’t pay for their lessons; fundraising and donations take care of that. They just have to get to the farm, off Hoffman’s Little Road. (Coming from Moore County is cooler. The journey off U.S. 1 starts at Thunder Road.)
So what is that “something” that a horse has? The something that can calm an autistic child or heal a wounded veteran?
“Horses walk like humans walk,” Pollard said — with the same kind of sway. And when they respond to the use of reins, they teach social and motor skills.
“It’s a living, breathing animal that (clients) have to develop a relationship with,” Pollard said. “Horses will pick up or match your mood, (so) we match the horse with the rider.”
And riding a horse “is kind of an equalizer,” Pollard said. “Anyone can get on a horse. It’s a therapeutic (activity) that allows (atypical people) to be typical.”
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]