Horses and humans have been interacting for years. Candy is a Palomino and Dodie is a thoroughbred who were adopted after the San Diego fires. In the horse stall next to them is Diesel, a quarter-draft horse whose special skills include Equine-Assisted Therapy for adults and children.
Queen of Hearts Therapeutic Riding Center is a nonprofit organization located in Jurupa Valley, roughly 60 miles east of Los Angeles, and has been in operation since 2000. It’s a full-time equestrian center for people with physical or mental challenges, as well as those who are simply working through life-changing events.
Brandon Morales is 11 years old and has cerebral palsy. With the assistance of his father and an electric lift, Brandon is able to experience Equine-Assisted Therapy. This is no ordinary riding lesson, but rather an exercise Brandon’s parents believe allows him to relax and develop muscle tone, coordination, confidence, and perhaps most importantly, well-being.
Brandon began therapeutic riding when he was just 6 years old. He is working with Holly, one of his favorite horses. It’s believed the rhythmical gait of a horse acts to move the rider’s pelvis in the same rotation and side-to-side movement that occurs while walking. The therapy encourages Brandon’s motion and mobility.
Robin Kilcoyne is the founder of Queen of Hearts Therapeutic Riding Center. “We work with people of all ages from across California who may be dealing with mental issues such as PTSD or physical disabilities like Brandon’s. In Brandon’s particular case, riding and interacting with the horses helps with coordination, memory, and task sequencing,” she said.
Eugene and Sandra Morales describe Equine-Assisted Therapy – or “EAT” as it’s known – as life-changing for their entire family, explaining, “The biggest thing that we saw with Brandon was a marked difference in his posture and mobility. We stopped for a year to try other types of therapy, and we saw a decline and realized horseback riding as therapy was really making a difference and helping our son.”
Robin explains that with EAT, riders work on coordination using both sides of their brain, so it’s important that they sit tall in the riding position to get the best benefits.
Sandra said, “I would recommend it even if you didn’t have a medical condition. Robin cares very much about my son. He is learning how to ride a horse, which in itself is remarkable.” Sandra went on to remark how Brandon has been riding a horse in a parade, which has built his self-esteem and confidence, as well as improved his overall condition.
Equine therapy has been around since the 1960s. Horses possess the ability to respond and give feedback to a groomer or rider’s behavior, often mirroring their emotions, which makes it easy for a patient to establish a connection with the horse.
Robin remarked, “They all have their independent characteristics and they like their job, because if they didn’t like their job then we couldn’t use them. We have a retired barrel racer who has arthritis and another horse who survived the San Diego fires, so for some of these horses, this is their last chance and they now serve a bigger purpose.”
Queen of Hearts operates strictly on donations and the kindness of its volunteers.
Karen Bradford is a long-time supporter of Queen of Hearts and explained, “We have horses that are so well-trained and accepting of each person’s condition that you might not even realize there are disabilities.”
Queen of Hearts also operates the Equine Services for Heroes Program, specifically designed to work with the needs of wounded veterans. Those with brain injuries work on memory skills in an obstacle course, while others may address behavioral disabilities. Robin Kilcoyne is the founder and a retired Army JAG Sgt. Major. She holds a master’s degree in education and is a Certified Equine Specialist in Mental Health & Learning, as well as a Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor. She and her staff are currently working to advance Queen of Hearts services for the autistic community.
Lucy may be the smallest horse on the Queen of Hearts Ranch, but she certainly has one of the biggest jobs. Little Lucy is used in Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy, a collaboration with mental health professionals to provide sessions for young children, especially those who may have a physical disability.
Equine-Assisted Therapy is not intended to replace more commonly used treatments, but rather to complement them. The mission of Queen of Hearts is to improve the lives of children, adults, and veterans with disabilities through therapeutic riding.
“What we do is give hope to a family to take that child or that adult and help discover what are the capabilities, what are the needs, and that’s what makes us excited about waking up in the morning,” Karen said.
Queen of Hearts Therapeutic Riding Center: making a difference in the lives of others. That’s the American Spirit.