Jen Ezpeleta

Mane Attraction: Horseback riding helps people with special needs, physically and emotionally

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by Rachel Reeves

Maggie McCarthy struggled in school, her confidence hampered by severe dyslexia. But on a horse, the Palos Verdes native felt fearless and free. She went on to win 17 horseback championships. Science research explains McCarthy’s experience: that riding horses offers emotional, mental, and physical benefits. Research also shows riding horses helps people with special needs in ways both measurable and intangible, and can help with balance, walking, and even talking.

These findings prompted Niki MacLeod and Dr. Erin O’Mahony to found Manes for Movement in Rolling Hills. 

“I’ve always felt the benefits of being involved with horses and how special they are,”  said MacLeod, who also grew up riding horses in Rolling Hills Estates. “To take my knowledge and create a safe, inclusive environment for people with special needs — that’s really fulfilling for me. I’ve trained a lot of people in my career with horses and this really touches your soul differently.”

MacLeod met O’Mahony, a physical therapist, at a PATH certification program in Chatsworth. (PATH stands for Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.) Both were living in the South Bay and shared a lifelong interest in horsemanship. 

“We just really hit it off,” MacLeod recalled.

Brandon cleans the hoof of his Manes for Movement horse.

O’Mahony grew up in Oregon and earned a doctorate in physical therapy from  Northwestern University before moving to Redondo Beach. When the two met, O’Mahony was working for a therapeutic riding center. She’d long been thinking about how a practice she loved — hippotherapy — might be made accessible to people in the South Bay. 

MacLeod worked as a trainer at a show barn, rode professionally, and had been volunteering in the horse-assisted therapy community for nearly a decade.

Their conversations led to a vision, which led to a plan, which became Manes for Movement. Their organization’s point of difference, MacLeod and O’Mahony decided, would be hippotherapy. Other riding academies offer sessions for people with special needs, but Manes for Movement is now the only center within a 50-mile radius that offers the practice often used by physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists. Hippotherapy involves using a horse as a tool in sessions, not only because of the animal’s rhythmic, predictable movements, which emulate the way humans walk and can help teach a person to walk, but also because it’s more fun and soulful than exercises in a doctor’s office.

Research shows it’s helpful for people who struggle with motor functions, remaining balanced while seated, and coordination. People with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, autism, and paraplegia respond well to hippotherapy.

At Manes for Movement, riders have the option of transferring into the adaptive horseback riding program, led by MacLeod. Adaptive riding has been shown to help people with posture, coordination, balance, flexibility, and strength. It can also help with learning motor skills and developing a sense of responsibility and independence. Small-group sessions improve social skills and teamwork. Perhaps most importantly, the therapy is fun.

A big horse puts a big smile on Cayden, who is being assisted by Manes for Movement co-founder Niki MacLeod.

“I’m a science person,” MacLeod said. “I love all of the science of it, but there’s just something special about the connection these riders have with their horses.”

Manes for Movement began in 2018, but did not receive nonprofit status until this past April, in the midst of the global pandemic — an especially opportune time to begin marketing and fundraising in earnest, given the mental and emotional impacts of the novel coronavirus. 

MacLeod and O’Mahony still have other jobs. MacLeod works at a show barn and O’Mahony offers telehealth sessions with clients. They run Manes for Movement on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and do administrative work in their spare time.

“We’re wearing all the hats right now, as you do in a new organization,” MacLeod said. “It’s a weird time. You can’t have typical fundraisers, so we’ve had to get creative.”

Through November, Manes for Movement is holding a fundraising campaign called “The Month of Giving.” Riders will share their stories on ManesForMovement.com and social media about how the program has helped them.

Karter gives a hug to her Manes for Movement horse, with guidance from Niki MacLeod.

“We want to make the program accessible to everyone,” MacLeod said. “That’s why we’re looking to get some financial assistance —  to make sure we can make our services as accessible to people as possible and still maintain a high standard for safety and quality of horses and how they’re maintained.”

Manes for Movement has clients ranging in age from two to 80, with diagnoses ranging from cerebral palsy and rare immune diseases to autism and Down’s syndrome. 

One client was non-verbal and wouldn’t make eye contact when his parents started bringing him to sessions.

“Now he loves it,” MacLeod said. “He loves coming to the barn. He always has a big smile on his face. He’s starting to communicate with sign language and words. It’s really cool. It’s a good feeling, knowing my skill set in horses is being put to good use.”

Suzette James said her teenage daughter has made huge improvements in her mobility and walking skills.

“It’s not even as if she’s doing physical therapy,” James said. “It’s just so enjoyable for her to come here. I think that makes it a lot easier for her to make the strides that she has. She’s gained a lot of confidence.”

“All of the staff, they see the possibility. They don’t just see the diagnosis, they see the human being,” James said. PEN

Photos by David Fairchild (DavidFairchildStudio.com)

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