Gaits to Success: Horses helping those to help themselves

Published 2:52 am Sunday, May 31, 2009

We’ve all heard of someone needing a helping hand at times, maybe even needed one ourselves, but how about a helping hoof? Four helping hooves? The Gaits to Success program offers the chance for those who may never even walk to “to run as fast as the wind” through the use of therapeutic horsemanship — and a few helping hooves.

On a recent spring afternoon, two of Picayune’s residents, LeeAnn Bertucci and Bradley Morrow, were seen taking advantage of the Gaits program, located for the past 12 years in Kiln. The session, led by M. Carolyn Rhodes, Gaits Director, slightly resembled pony rides at times but were indeed something quite different.

“Bradley and LeeAnn are riding independently and working on a pattern right now,” said Rhodes. “We do it a couple of times — we’re working on small motor skills, large motor skills, focus, sequencing, that sort of thing — and it’s all in a game.” She said she coaches the students first and then lets them do it themselves to see if they can repeat the patterns. Bertucci and Morrow were led through cones and around barrels and had to command the horses to start and stop — making it seem almost easy.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Bertucci, a resident of Bridgeway Apartments in Picayune, clearly loves her sessions at Gaits. “LeeAnn has been riding with us since she was 14 and she’s 28 now,” said Barbara Kaiser, founder of Gaits to Success, Inc. Bertucci’s parents sought the use of Gaits to help her with her balance and coordination so she could accompany her family on their annual ski trips. “She started riding in the fall and by that February her balance was so good, she was able to ski.”

Morrow, according to his mother Suzette Morrow, has also shown a number of improvements in his last four months of attending Gaits.

“It’s helping him to focus more, to listen better and follow directions,” said Mom. “He talks really loud, so when he’s around the horses he has to learn to talk low, which is real plus,” she said. She also sees improvement in his self-esteem and added that he’s even started training for the Special Olympics — just for horsemanship — in Gulfport.

Bradley Morrow has recently started riding independently (without side-walkers for support). Though his verbal skills are limited, he beams as he carefully leads the horse and earns his praise from Rhodes. “He’s real excited,” said mom Suzette.

Bertucci and Morrow are just two examples of the many who have taken advantage of Gaits to Success. Students from the Exceptional Program in the Picayune School District are also sent to take classes at Gaits. Kaiser said students are accepted to Gaits at the age of three, or younger if accompanied by a physical or occupational therapist.

Gaits serves riders with a variety of disabilities, including those with partial paralysis, autism, cerebral palsy, developmental delays and the mentally challenged. Students who utilize this type of therapy at least once a week have exhibited both physical and cognitive benefits.

Physical benefits from this type of therapy can include an increase in normal muscle tone, postural stability and symmetry, trunk strengthening, stretching of select muscle groups, gentle mobilization of the pelvis, spine and hip joints and improved fine motor skills.

Mental benefits can include enhanced self-esteem, improved attention span, increased self-monitoring of appropriate behaviors, deeper concentration leading to auditory and visual learning opportunities and strengthened memory.

Kaiser said she has seen students with cerebral palsy experience fewer spasms and those with crutches walk much easier. “It’s amazing, it really is amazing,” she said.

“It stretches their limitations, either physical or mental,” Kaiser continued. “They have to listen to what’s being asked of them and it goes from the brain to the hands … it increases their ability to think.”

Gaits is a member of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, the governing organization for horse therapy, and as such, all of their sessions are conducted by volunteers who are NARHA-certified instructors. These instructors take their students through eight levels of riding skills.

Safety being of the utmost importance, students who have never ridden before will be flanked by side-walkers for support and everyone is required to wear proper attire and the NARHA-approved safety helmets.

The horses are even prescreened through Gaits instructors before they are accepted into the program. Kaiser said when horses are purchased or donated, they have to go back if they don’t work out and that is part of any purchase agreement.

Gaits staff works to train the horses. The ones that make the cut have to be very patient as they will be pulled on and often sent confusing or mixed signals by the students. “It’s really mundane for horses to do this kind of thing,” said Kaiser. “Older horses kind of gravitate to this but they can’t be so old that they don’t have the energy.”

“The horses are big and they can cause problems,” said Rhodes. “But we think that the benefits far outweigh any of the risks we have to take, as long as we minimize those risks as much as possible.”

Gaits has recently devised a fundraising effort to help financially challenged students with scholarship dollars to enter the program. “Horsing Around in the Kitchen” — a collection of recipes by Gaits participants — can be purchased with a $10 donation. Send your donation to Gaits to Success Therapeutic Horsemanship Center, P.O. Box 150, Kiln, MS 39556, along with a return address. A copy of your cookbook will be sent to you after the donation has been received.

To learn more about the Gaits to Success Therapeutic Horsemanship Center, call 228-255-5368 or visit Those helping hooves just might be able to help you too.