John Payne, founder of Sundance Circle Hippotherapy, calls Montana, a patient Quarter Horse with a heart of gold, his “steady Eddy.” “She’s a fantastic horse that is gentle with anyone,” he explains. But she’s not just a great physical therapy partner, she’s also a great life-skills teacher.
John recalls one session in particular. A young girl with epilepsy and autism had a massive meltdown as she was getting ready to ride Montana. She ended up kicking the horse several times. “Montana was patient and calm,” John says, never flinching. Eventually, the girl regained control of her emotions and was able to complete her therapy session. But as she was leaving, Montana decided to teach her some manners. “The mare gave a huge sneeze, right in the girl’s face,” John remembers. “The girl wasn’t impressed, but we told her paybacks occur!”
Those real-world lessons are an added benefit to therapy sessions at Sundance, where children and adults come for speech, occupational and physical therapy in a decidedly non-traditional setting. Patients are paired with a therapist and a trained therapy horse, and together, they work to improve coordination, balance and strength. It’s a model that volunteer Dar Nottage says delivers clear results.
“I have witnessed a wide range of improvements in patients, including improved muscle strength, greater confidence, increased social awareness and enhanced empathy for others,” she explains. Plus, she adds, clients learn that therapy can be fun.
That last point just might be the biggest key to the program’s success and rapid growth. Three years ago, John launched Sundance Circle with little more than a vision and a lone horse. However, as word spread and his patient list grew, so did the Sundance herd. Today, the non-profit has seven therapy horses, seven therapists and sees more than 100 patient visits every month.
“The patients love their therapy and time with the horses,” John explains, as do the therapists and the volunteers. “It’s a win for everyone.”