Katja Summerlin has always had a love for horses, but she never expected to someday be running an organization that uses horses for therapy.
"I grew up right around the corner from a therapeutic riding center," Summerlin, executive director for Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center, told a Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club meeting Wednesday at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hot Springs.
"That's where I got close to horses, and so little did I know that it was back in the '80s, where therapeutic riding was in its very early stages in Europe, and little did I know that I was with the very founders of therapeutic riding in Europe. So it followed me, and I never knew that one day I would be doing this kind of work," she said.
Summerlin and her husband, Zach, had plans to move west following a stop in Hot Springs after living in Switzerland, her native country, but things changed with the birth of their son, Aiden.
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"We moved here from Switzerland almost 12 years ago and thought we would move out west, finding another job with the National Park Service, but obviously, that didn't happen," she said.
"God had other plans for us. We stuck around Hot Springs because of Aiden and because he needed a hospital close by. My son was born with Down syndrome and needed open heart surgery at age 3 months old, and so when he came along, it turned our lives upside down as you can imagine. We spent over four months in the hospital. He's now well, and the cutest, orneriest, most stubborn little boy."
In addition to the follow-up visits that came with his surgery, Aiden needed therapists to help him "grow and learn," Summerlin said.
"From the very beginning, he had occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy," she said.
"And so when we kind of surfaced out of our survival mode after being out of the hospital and trying to manage life with a special-needs child, this idea started to form. I had a love for horses ever since I could remember.
"My parents cannot explain it to this day where it came from because nobody else in our family were horse people. And so it has always been I took every second I could to be close to horses, but I never owned horses up until we moved to Hot Springs. And so buying the property, I fulfilled a dream of mine. I always knew it was for something bigger, but when (Aiden) came along, it all started to make sense," Summerlin said.
Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center works with several providers for therapy, and the hope is to expand its offerings in the future.
"One service that we want to offer in the future is therapeutic riding," Summerlin said, noting that is a misnomer. "It is actually called adaptive riding where we teach someone with a disability to ride a horse. So it's a recreational service, but we have to have the background of knowing about disabilities and how we can adapt our teaching so they can understand. That's in the future."