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Horses give therapy to special-needs teens
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Eight girls from a group home in West Point spent a week with horses as part of a therapy program hoped to be the first of many offered around the state.
Mississippi State University's Horse Park hosted FOCUS, a day camp from July 15 to 19 designed for girls age 12 to 17 for "Finding Out about Communicating, Understanding and Succeeding."
The girls from Community Counseling Services' Parkview Group Home spent each morning learning how to groom, saddle, mount and ride horses. Mary Ford, MSU Extension Service therapeutic riding coordinator, said using horses in therapy is known as hippotherapy and can be useful in a variety of situations.
"Therapeutic riding serves socially, emotionally and behaviorally challenged people," Ford said. "These girls are learning about relationships and communication. They have to build a relationship with their horse to communicate with it and get it to do what they want it to."
Diane Matthews, youth care specialist at Parkview Group Home, said by late in the week, the girls who are usually quite loud at home had learned to be quiet and calm around the horses.
"They're getting positive reinforcement at this camp. They're getting attention, but in a positive way," Matthews said.
Angela Wigginton, crisis coordinator with Community Counseling Services, said the girls are also learning cooperation and building confidence, trust, self-respect and self-esteem.
"We were very skeptical at first about the program, and wondered what a week with a horse could do," Wigginton said. "Now I'm excited. It's been good for the girls."
In addition to learning how to care for and ride a horse, the girls completed MSU's team-building ropes course, completed arts and crafts projects, and heard about educational and scholarship opportunities at MSU.
Among the many staff and volunteers making the camp happen were four Oktibbeha County 4-H girls who assisted with the riding and provided peer support. Allegra Dowdle, 15; Faeh Herring, 16; Ericka Farrer, 16; and Paige Guin, 14, are all involved in 4-H horse projects. They volunteered their time for the week-long camp, and helped teach the girls how to work with horses.
"Seeing them smile when they learned something and accomplished something makes it all worth it," Guin said.
Lina Beall, Clay County administrator for Community Counseling Services, said the state Department of Mental Health has offered a few other FOCUS camps across the state, but this is the first that involves horses. If it's successful, the innovative camp will be a model for others wanting to offer a similar experience in their area.
"They're collecting data on the front end, at the end of the project and after the first nine weeks of school to see how it has impacted the girls and their own perception of targeted areas they're working on," Beall said. "We're also getting input from staff who are working directly with them, and all the onsite information has been very favorable."
FOCUS was sponsored by the Mississippi Horse Park, the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, the MSU 4-H TEAM therapeutic riding program, Community Counseling Services and First United Methodist Church in Starkville.
For more information on therapeutic riding or this FOCUS camp, contact Ford at (662) 325-3350.