Sometimes the best treatment for those with physical, mental or emotional challenges is not provided by another person, but by a horse.
"There's something about a horse and a person that just opens doors," said Anne Davis, the founder and current executive director of Horses with Hope Inc., an organization that employs various "equine therapy" techniques to help individuals with a number of mental and physical disabilities, ranging from autism to Down syndrome to cerebral palsy.
After using other stables for years, Horses with Hope has recently opened its own facilities in a building in South Park.
The organization had an open house Sunday to raise awareness of the new facility, which features sufficient stable room to house eight horses, and office space for the organization's administrative work. The organization has four horses now.
Mrs. Davis founded the program in 2007, and has been using the facilities from the Paradise Hills Horse 'N Soul Riding Academy in Washington County, where the program also will continue.
She first stumbled upon the world of equine therapy when she was pregnant with her daughter Jamie Lynn, now 10, who has Down syndrome. Mrs. Davis, who said she owned horses when she was younger, was immediately intrigued.
"A light went off and I knew right then that that was what I was supposed to do in life," she said. "It's been my passion ever since."
She went on to become certified as an instructor of equine therapy by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International. She currently shares instructor duties at Horses with Hope with another woman, Joanne Murdy.
Horses with Hope, which was recently awarded status as a nonprofit, offers different therapy activities, with or without actual riding, depending on the age, experience level and disability of the participant.
A typical riding session lasts around 45 minutes, with riders grooming and equipping their horse for the first 15 minutes and then riding for the last half hour. Two volunteers walk on each side of the rider for safety, while a third leads the horse. The cost is $40 per rider.
The physical act of riding a horse can be extremely beneficial, both to those with exclusively physical disabilities, as well as individuals with Down syndrome, which is frequently accompanied by muscular weakness, including in the trunk muscles. Riding strengthens the rider's core and improves balance.
According to Heather Nyapas of Munhall, whose 5-year-old son, Niko, started riding last summer, it is also fun.
Niko has Down syndrome, which requires him to complete regular physical therapy. Mrs. Nyapas said that, compared with more typical physical therapies, Niko is much more engaged and excited by his sessions at Horses with Hope.
"This is more fun for him," she said. "... It's therapy. But to him it's just riding horse."
According to Mrs. Davis, equine therapy also can help mentally disabled children build confidence and come out of their shell. This is something she has noticed with her own daughter.
"It gives her a sense of accomplishment," she said. "It's something that she can do and not need somebody else to help her do it."
Mrs. Nyapas said equine therapy has also helped Niko with his speech.
"It's given him something to talk about," she said.
At the same time, riding can have a calming influence, helping individuals learn how to control their behaviors.
Mount Washington resident Samantha Huber's daughter, A-Leesia Davenport, 5, has Down syndrome and a pervasive developmental disorder diagnosis, which puts her on the autism spectrum.
Ms. Huber said A-Leesia, who started at Horses with Hope earlier this summer, is typically "very bold, very aggressive," but that, as soon as she gets on a horse, she calms down.
"You would never really know that she had a disability when she's on a horse," she said.
In addition to individual families, Horses with Hope also works with groups from special education centers, schools and homes for the disabled.
While many of the riders are children and young people, individuals of all ages participate. Mrs. Davis said the oldest rider she could think of was in their 50s or 60s.
Besides the two instructors, Horses with Hope relies heavily on volunteers.
In addition to their duties during riding sessions, volunteers help with administrative tasks, fundraising and barn maintenance.
Mrs. Davis has big plans for the future development of Horses with Hope.
She hopes to soon obtain Premier PATH certification for the organization, which would make Horses with Hope the only Premier-certified equine therapy provider in southwestern Pennsylvania. She also plans to incorporate services for at-risk youth and for military veterans.
To accomplish both goals, however, Horses with Hope would need an indoor arena, which would let them stay open throughout the year. They currently operate from mid-March to mid-November.
Mrs. Davis is now pursuing grants, which, supplemented by private donations, would pay for the purchase or construction of an indoor arena.
For the moment, however, she is focused on the goal immediately in front of her: the success of the new facility in South Park.
"We just want to get the word out to the community that we're here, and what we're all about," she said. "And hopefully they'll wrap their arms around us."
Those who are 14 or older and interested in volunteering can find more information at http://www.horseswithhope.org.
Lee Purvey: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1999.