Riding horses has made it possible for Shawna Hoover to feel what it is like to walk.
Hoover, 19, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after suffering a stroke in-utero, said her mother, Jennifer Berry.
“Her body doesn’t move the same way ours does,” Berry said.
Hoover attends Victory Farm, a nonprofit therapeutic riding program that serves Gaston, York, Mecklenburg and Lincoln counties; it opened in 2010.
Victory Farm focuses on horsemanship, allowing the movement of the horse to help those with special needs, said Dory Pell, the program director.
“It’s the horse that is magical, not particularly anything we do with them,” she said.
The movement of the horses, Berry said, mimics the natural gait of humans. She said riding and stretching has helped Hoover grow stronger.
“It gets her muscles to perform like muscles should perform,” Berry said.
Hoover has been riding horses therapeutically for five years. She began with a riding program in New York, where her family lived before moving to Gastonia.
Berry said she has seen improvement in Hoover’s ability to move, which has eliminated the need for surgery.
“She’s able to maneuver a lot better through life,” Berry said.
Berry said riding also allows Hoover to be social.
“Kids with disabilities don’t always have social interactions the same as other people do,” she said. “This gets her out and involved with not only the horses, but with the people.”
For Hoover, riding a horse is about more than just physical therapy.
“The sense of accomplishment for her is just amazing,” Berry said.
Victory Farm hopes to continue its services in a new site along the North and South Carolina border. However, the farm recently was forced to move into a temporary site when the lease expired on the old site. The move caused the organization a huge unexpected expense, Pell said.
“It’s a setback,” she said.
Victory Farm had been looking to move into a bigger facility for the past two years, but had to put much of its funding into the recent unexpected move, Pell said.
Victory Farm operators have found a space for now, but the organization needs help raising $100,000 for a down payment on property at the North Carolina-South Carolina border fit for the group’s future goals, Pell said.
Victory Farms is supported by the riders paying fees for the therapy program and through private donations.
Pell said the goal is to expand the riders’ reach with new programs such as animal assisted activities and horticultural activities.
“We can get kids to do things here we can’t in a clinical setting,” she said.
Victory Farm hopes to become self-sustaining on its new property through public trail rides, growing its own hay, and leasing space for meetings, parties and clinics, Pell said.
Programs like the one at Victory Farm are crucial for those with disabilities, Berry said.
“It’s monumental for the population most in need,” she said.
Victory Farm challenges riders to lead their horses themselves, helping them with balance, coordination and strength.
“We give them as much independence as possible,” Pell said.
The farm works with a variety of riders with debilitating diseases, illnesses or injuries. Besides physical benefits, the therapy rides also help improve self-confidence and emotional control.
Those with mental disabilities can often become overwhelmed by one sense, Pell said. Riding horses provides a soothing, constant motion that works the rider’s muscles and helps them manage their senses.
“This is life changing,” she said.
The experience at Victory Farm changed the life of Brayden, a 9-year-old whose spine was curved in the shape of a C, Pell said. Riding allowed Brayden to strengthen his body and learn to hold his head up and get his hips under him.
When the horse moved, so did Brayden’s legs.
“That’s how he knew what (walking) felt like,” Pell said.
Amanda Harris is a freelance writer; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to help?
To donate to Victory Farm, visit www.gofundme.com/qnberw, donate through the Community Foundation of Gaston County or mail checks to Victory Farm P.O. Box 6341 Gastonia NC 28056. For more information, contact Dory Pell, program director, at info@VictoryRides.org or 704-241-2270.