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WATCH: Changing lives

The magic in the movement of a horse by James Leigh | August 21, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.
Patrick, a client at Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center, smiles atop Steeler during a recent therapy session. Wendy Kaitkosky, left, of Kidsource Therapy and Dana Sisente, a volunteer at the center, help keep Patrick balanced while Rachel Staton leads Steeler back up a hill. - Photo by Lance Porter of The Sentinel-Record

PEARCY -- Katja Summerlin has always had a love for horses.

Ever since she was a child growing up in Switzerland, she loved the animals.

"And my family still to this day doesn't know why," she said.

Summerlin started working with horses at a local therapeutic riding center in Switzerland, "without knowing that one day it will become a profession for me."

She and her husband moved to Hot Springs about 10 years ago, and when she was pregnant with her son, Aiden, they learned that he had a heart defect and Down syndrome.

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"At the time, we found out that he had a (atrioventricular) canal heart defect, needed open heart surgery, and he was diagnosed with Down syndrome," she said. "And so I knew that moving forward, we would need a lot of therapy. I started to do research to see if there's any equine-assisted therapy places in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and I realized there was none."

This was a surprise to Summerlin due to the longstanding connection to horses in the Spa City.

"I wondered about that because Hot Springs is such a strong horse community," she said. "And so it kind of started to nudge on me, like, 'OK, you grew up around the therapeutic riding centers. You have a lot of horse experience, and now you have a child with special needs.' So I married the two passions."

Despite her desire and experience of working with horses, Summerlin knew that starting Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center would be a huge undertaking.

"For a long time, I did not want to do it because I knew how much it would involve," she said. "I didn't grow up here. I didn't have all the connections, so it was a big undertaking to make a center like this happen. But I was surprised when I started looking for people to support me. It was immediate. I had a board of directors together pretty quickly."

Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center was born.

Summerlin started a pilot program in 2021, an eight-week program where Kidsource Therapy brought therapists and their clients to the facility on Sunshine Road for hippotherapy.

"It has nothing to do with hippos," she said. "Hippo is a Greek word for horse. ... Different people also call it equine-assisted therapy services. So, what hippotherapy is occupational, physical and speech therapy on horseback, where we use the movement of the horse as a tool during therapy."

The facility has now entered its second year of operation and has added psychotherapy to its services.

"We added psychotherapy to our services," Summerlin said. "Psychotherapy uses the horses and the interaction of the horses to mirror our emotions, and it's quite powerful what horses can show us about us if we let them. And so we have a licensed therapist, trauma specialist, who brings their client out to work with our horses and their clients."

Although the facility was primarily focused on children its first year due to its partnership with Kidsource Therapy, Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center has added a second therapy provider in Hot Springs Hand Therapy.

"Their occupational therapist brings out their clients starting in the fall, and she can serve kids and adults," Summerlin said. "And so over the year, it fluctuates with how many kids we can serve. This summer we had 12, and we had six clients for psychotherapy."

Equine-assisted therapy, or hippotherapy, uses the movement of a horse to add to a therapy session.

"The magic of it all lies in the movement of the horse," Summerlin said. "One step of a horse is one neural input put to the brain. So it helps with activating the brain in a good way to relax the nervous system and to regulate the nervous system, and that is a big piece in therapy. ... When the nervous system is relaxed and calm, then learning is possible."

Speech, Summerlin said, is "a very complex process," and speech therapy sessions are "literally connecting the dots in the brain to make speech happen. ... The brain needs to talk to the mouth and all the muscles to speech can happen."

Physical therapy is more straightforward with clients using "all kinds of muscles ... to sit straight up on a horse," Summerlin said.

"The kids have fun riding and have no idea how strengthening it is, and sometimes our kids get tired," she said. "They get really, really tired just because of all the input to the brain and then the physical challenges, too. And so we see kids that have better core strength, for example. They move better, and they're more relaxed."

Occupational therapy starts with the client riding the horse before stopping to do therapeutic exercises.

"It's basically a therapy session on a horse," Summerlin said. "We take all the toys and all the tools on horseback that we ride, have the neural input to the brain, get the movement going, and the rhythm going. And then we stop and do a couple of exercises. And it's really neat to see when you see them relax and really being able to focus."

Each therapy session requires three people to be involved in addition to the client -- a horse leader, the therapist and what Summerlin calls a side-walker who mirrors and assists the therapist during the session.

"The horse leader is in charge of any movement the horse makes," she said. "She is in charge of making sure things are safe, and when things are not safe, the horse leader gets the command to take the child off just in case of horse spooks. I mean, we're dealing with a flight animal; things can happen. But we have people placed strategically around the horse to ensure safety."

The therapist walks alongside the horse and rider, conducting the therapy session, while the side-walker helps the client stay on the horse and aids the therapist.

"There's different holds (that are used) depending on abilities or disabilities," Summerlin continued. "We have different holds of how to secure a child on horseback. Some kids are pretty able-bodied, and we don't have to have hands on them during a session, and some need a lot of support. For example, we put them on the pony because we can literally grab on to them and support them during a session."

Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center has several horses that range from 7 to 22 years of age.

"Our youngest horse is 7 years old," Summerlin said. "He is very well trained under saddle. He's still young, and we're still training him. He does a beautiful job tuning into our clients. ... (Steeler) our oldest one; he's 22 years old. He has been hauling kids around all his life, and he enjoys just having an activity. And then the pony, she's also older. She's 22 years old as well, but she doesn't know it that she's that old."

In addition to the 12-member board, Summerlin is the only staff member at Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center.

"We need an army of volunteers to help us along," she said. "As you can imagine feeding horses is not cheap. They need to be fed every day; the barn needs to be cleaned every day. So we heavily rely on volunteers to come out and help."

Summerlin said that the cost to keep and train the horses is high, both monetarily and in labor, but it is worth it when a client has a breakthrough.

"When the matching hits, it's a beautiful thing, and it literally changes lives," she said. "So when we see progress in a client, then it's all worth it. Sometimes you have days where it's just work and work, and you're like, 'Oh my goodness, this is so much work,' but when you see it happen, it makes it all go away, and you're like, 'OK, that's the reason why we're in this kind of work.'"

Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center is having a fundraising event on Sept. 29 at The Reserve, 2330 Central Ave., from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Heavy hors d'oeuvres will be served along with live music by Jerry Lewis, live painting by Holly Tilley and silent and live auctions.

Those interested in volunteering at Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center can visit its website at and fill out a form expressing interest. The facility has a number of volunteer positions, from being involved with the therapy to helping with cleaning, facility maintenance and feeding the horses.

People looking to enroll in hippotherapy can contact Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center at 501-762-3157 or check with their therapist.

  photo  Patrick, a client at Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center, looks back toward his mother while riding Steeler during a recent therapy session. Dana Sisente, a volunteer at the center, helps keep Patrick balanced while Rachel Staton leads Steeler past a corral. - Photo by Lance Porter of The Sentinel-Record
  photo  Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center Executive Director Katja Summerlin grooms Steeler before a therapy session. - Photo by Lance Porter of The Sentinel-Record
  photo  Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center Executive Director Katja Summerlin talks to The Sentinel-Record about the riding center. - Photo by Lance Porter of The Sentinel-Record

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