Healing on Horseback

Horses connect with people in special ways

By Susan Hoskins Miller
Photos courtesy of Agape

Tucked away in the countryside north of Cicero is a 13-acre horse farm with riding arenas and beautiful wooded acreage with trails. But this isn’t just any horse farm. This farm is Agape Therapeutic Riding Resources.

Miracles

Agape’s motto is “Unbridled Hope.” That’s what they give to their 1,900 clients every year. Most come weekly. Agape’s clients come to them with a wide range of issues they need help with healing. Some can’t verbalize their thoughts, some have memory issues and some have physical disabilities. The horses, guided by professional therapists and instructors, bring out abilities in these students they have never before been able to master on their own or through traditional therapies.

“Agape does equine therapy as opposed to hippotherapy,” said Donita Wire, who, with her husband, Ben, has volunteered at Agape for the past 19 years. “We are people of faith, and we know that God is working here, too. We’ve served in many different capacities as volunteers, and we’ve seen miracles.”

One miracle they’ve witnessed happened with a client named Bill. “He was in his thirties when he came to us,” Donita said. “He was developmentally at a grade school level and didn’t speak much. He was also shy. He was so unsure of himself when he started on the horse.”

Beginners like Bill don’t use regular reins when they first ride a horse until they are a little more experienced.

“They use a large strap that looks like a handle. He was sitting on a big pad and held on to that strap so tight the horse thought he wanted it to go faster,” Donita said. “We worked with him for two or three years and he started improving.”

Soon Bill was able to not only guide the horse, but he gained confidence in his own abilities. The biggest difference, though, was in his verbal skills.

“He’s now a spokesman for Janus,” Donita said. “His guardian attributes his speaking skills to Agape. 

Unconditional Love

Ben said volunteering at Agape is therapeutic for him and Donita, too.

“The staff, other volunteers and the families of the clients are the most loving people you will ever see,” he said. “We learn so much from them.”

The word Agape (pronounced uh-GAH-pay) is Greek for unconditional love. That is the environment that Agape provides for all its clients, their families and volunteers.

Equine therapy experts say a horse’s gait is so much like a human’s gait that riding a horse exercises groups of muscles in people who are physically unable to use those muscles. That’s why the physical improvements are so dramatic. Riding a horse is much more fun and effective than hours of physical therapy exercises and why results happen more quickly for patients.

Agape also has clients who are unable to ride horses, such as wounded veterans. Those clients drive horse-drawn carriages and carts. Even interacting with horses drawing carts results in dramatic changes in Agape’s clients, similar to those seen in patients who ride horses. Carriage driving increases physical abilities as well as emotional, social and cognitive abilities.

Agape’s executive director, Amanda Bocik, says horses are so sensitive they pick up on patients’ feelings and inner turmoil then mirror those back to the clients in real time.

“This gives the students an opportunity to see what they are doing,” she said. “They learn how their actions and behaviors affect the horses so they change their behaviors.”

How the horses help students become verbal, improve their memories and other abilities aren’t so easily explained, but the results can’t be denied.

274 volunteers

Agape has 20 horses and 7 miniature horses that serve its two campuses. The main campus is the Cicero farm. The other is in Bradford Woods just south of Indianapolis near Martinsville.

Programs and services at Agape include the riding therapies for individuals, as well as groups and classes of between five and twenty participants. The miniature horses are used in a program called Memory Lane when they are taken to nursing homes and senior centers, led by certified instructors.

Agape’s Instructor in Training Program trains future instructors as they work to become certified through PATH International, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship.

Agape is run by a staff of 20 comprised of 12 full-time and eight part time employees. Twelve are  PATH International certified therapeutic riding instructors, six are PATH International certified equine specialsts in mental health and learning and two are PATH International mentors. It relies heavily on its 274 active volunteers who come every week.

Agape is governed by a 15-member board of directors with committees for governance, finance, development, facility and expansion.

The Cicero farm has a heated indoor riding arena, a classroom, wooded riding trails, and a family viewing area where parents and siblings can watch the arena through large windows.

Agape has many opportunities for individuals, businesses and groups to volunteer and for team-building within businesses. 

Sidewalkers walk beside riders to make sure they are safe riding the horses. Horse handlers keep the horses under control during lessons. Volunteers also help with grooming, tacking and leading the horses. Grounds and stable keepers help keep up the barn and property, which also includes cleaning stalls, filling water buckets, cleaning pastures and unloading hay.

Groups and individuals can also help out with special fundraising events Agape holds every year. Donations are always needed from individuals and groups to help maintain the horses and property, which is expensive.  Yet, they are able to keep the costs down for clients because of the generous donations and grants they’ve received thus far. Expenses keep growing, though, since there is a waiting list for clients needing services from Agape, so the need for donations and gifts is ongoing.

Ben Wire said one great need now is extra land near the Cicero farm so Agape can expand.

“We need to be able to have more horses so we can serve more clients,” he said. “So if anyone has any land out there, please let us know.”