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Horse therapy helps people make strides

Humans and horses team up for therapy sessions at a Hernando County riding center.

HERNANDO COUNTY, Fla. —  The sun’s coming upon Emerald M and the four-legged therapists here are just finishing up breakfast. They’ll soon be joined by their two-legged counterparts eager to start the day.

“Oh, I have the best job on the planet,” said Lisa Michelangelo, the founder of the Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center. “I have the best job on the planet.”

And that kind of passion is part of what makes this place in rural Hernando County so special. While treatment and healing take place at Emerald M, it’s certainly not your standard doctor’s office. Here, the teamwork between human and horses, provides a unique kind of therapy with proven results.

One of the amazing stories here belongs to 14-year-old Sarah Clanton. “Hello Sarah, good morning,” says Michelangelo, as she fits Sarah, with a riding helmet.

Sarah, who is blind and mostly non-verbal, was born in Ukraine. However, her life really began about 10 years ago when Yvonne Clanton’s heart expanded across the globe. “We saw a picture of Sarah on the internet,” explained Yvonne, who lives in Zephyrhills. “I just knew, I just knew Sarah was supposed to be our daughter.”

When Yvonne and her husband arrived in Ukraine to adopt Sarah, they found her living in horrific conditions. According to Yvonne, Sarah was in an adult mental institution, strapped to her bed much of the day, and severely malnourished.

“Sarah weighed 18 pounds at 5 1/2 years old. My oldest son weighed 18 pounds at 4 months old,” Yvonne said. “I went back in his baby books.”

Once at home with the Clantons, Sarah flourished. She grew stronger, but despite years of various therapies, she was still unable to walk. And then, Yvonne heard about the Hippotherapy program at Emerald M. “At that point she was 11 years old and I didn’t have much hope,” Yvonne admitted.

Hippotherapy uses the natural movement of a horse to help train muscles, nerves, and the brain, and to improve all the invisible communication between them.  At Emerald M--physical, occupational, and speech therapists team up with horses to provide treatment to kids and adults with a variety of disabilities. 

Michelangelo says Sarah had a lot working against her. “She had no concept of what her legs were supposed to do. She couldn’t see people walking and she didn’t know what it felt like,” explained Michelangelo.

But after just two months of working with the Emerald M therapists, riding a horse and feeling how the horse moved underneath her—Sarah made the connection and began taking steps herself. Now, with just the slight assistance of an arm, Sarah can walk all around the Emerald M barn.

“When I see her taking steps, I almost can’t believe it sometimes. It’s something we never expected. We thought she would be wheelchair bound the rest of her life,” said Yvonne. “Miracles do happen here—yes!”

Emerald M is a not-for-profit organization. To find out more about their programs and how to support them click here.