LONGMONT, Colo. – Mara Pawlowski has had a passion for horses her entire life.
“I drive to the ranch and my heart is beating so hard I’m so excited,” Pawlowski said.
But when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 20 years ago, riding a horse took on a whole new meaning.
“It’s hard for me to walk, but Elizabeth, I can ride a horse. And the self-confidence you get from that is pretty amazing.”
For nearly eight years, Pawlowski has been taking therapeutic horseback riding lessons at Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center. Therapeutic horseback riding is designed to help people living with mental and physical disabilities. It teaches the skills of riding in an adaptive way catering to what each person is dealing with.
“I had trouble keeping my feet in the stirrups. They would just slip out. So, they tied my feet with rubber bands,” Pawlowski said.
Michele Bruhn is the executive director of Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center (CTRC). She says equine therapy can work on core strength, balance, fine motor skills, self-esteem, anger management and sequencing of events for someone who’s had a stroke or a traumatic brain injury.
"You’re working on all these different muscle groups in your body to maintain balance sitting on a moving horse. Because the horse shifts and your body has to shift to maintain,” Bruhn said.
Pawlowski says the practice is good physical therapy for her, but more importantly it helps her emotional health.
“It’s really lonely. I’m really getting out of shape. Thing is, my disease is progressing, so the less I walk, the more difficult it is. And the biggest thing is balance”
Pawlowski is one of thousands across the nation who has been living in isolation without therapeutic riding.
“The pandemic has had a very serious impact on all our centers and therefore on over 62,000 participants at the various therapeutic riding centers,” PATH International CEO Kathy Alm said.
PATH International is a membership association that accredits centers providing equine-assisted services. CEO Kathy Alm says there are nearly 900 centers all over the U.S. and a great majority of them were forced to shut down since it’s not possible to safely social distance during a therapeutic riding lesson. It saddens her to think of riders not receiving the benefits of equine-assisted therapy right now.
“Maggie when we don’t get to see the horses, how do you ask me for riding the horses? (Maggie pats her head) Yes, put the helmet on the head. She’s saying, ‘put the helmet on, I want to ride,’” said Maggie's mother, Diane Palachek.
Palachek helps speak for her daughter, Maggie. Going to equine-assisted therapy used to be the highlight of Maggie’s week and it’s really made a difference in her life after attending lessons for 28 years.
“Maggie has core strength like nobody I know. She can sit up from just a laying down position not using her hands, she can pull herself up, she can sit for longer periods of time in her chair,” Palachek said.
Maggie sometimes has a difficult time breathing. She spent four years of her early life on a ventilator – and a disease like COVID-19 could be devastating. That’s one of the main reasons so many centers like CTRC have had to suspend classes. However, centers are starting to consider what needs to be done to safely resume.
“Temperature taking, seeing if anyone has any symptoms, having very small numbers of people here,” Bruhn said.
According to Alm, there’s no to-do list that will work for all the centers because each one is so unique and each state has different guidelines to follow. PATH International has been offering webinars about reopening, but for those in the at-risk population, it may not be possible to ride until we have a vaccine.
“When people say ‘well it’s hard because she doesn’t understand’ well she does understand,” Palachek said.
In the meantime, Alm says financial donations are very helpful since most centers are nonprofits.
“Seek out a local center, and if you have the means, volunteer and/or provide some financial support to keep them solvent and strong so that when life gets a little more open, they’re ready to provide services for those participants who are just ready and waiting,” Alm said.
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