A program called Gaits to Greatness is attempting to use the simple act of riding a horse to make radical changes in the lives of disabled children.
Dee Dee is always smiling and contemplating trusting her horse enough to ride with her eyes closed, arms out, and standing up. Then, just like that, there she goes.
Dee Dee was born with cerebral palsy, a degenerative condition of the spine that often causes severe pain and prohibits proper body movement. However, while she is on a horse, she moves with the grace of any other fifteen year old.
While Dee Dee rides, volunteer Pete Manley helps Alecia get saddled up. Alecia also suffers from cerebral palsy and just like Dee Dee, she can't stop smiling when it is her turn to ride. She says, more than anything, being on a horse relieves pain.
"It helps the muscles in my legs. It helps with my posture, to have better posture when I'm walking," said Alecia Crowell. "It really helps doing the different exercises on the horse. And I just really love it and I'm glad that we have a program here in Meridian."
GAITS to Greatness is a nonprofit, therapeutic horseback riding organization founded in 2009 by Dr. Marian Swindell.
"We just work on everything we can that helps these children thrive in the school, in the classroom, " said Swindell.
Swindell said she hopes to reach more children, but for now the small group of ten students from Northeast Middle School are bonding with the horses and flourishing as individuals. Just ask Ricky Thaggard, who donates his time and his horses to the program.
"All somebody would have to do is come down and take a look at this program," said Thaggard. "See the kids laughing and smiling and excited to be getting on a horse. The first time I said, well they really didn't know what to expect. But the second time, when they got off that bus they were stoked and I knew we were really doing something great."
That's a sentiment shared by everyone that teaches and learns from the program.
Part 2 will focus on the exercises used in equine therapy, and why teachers believe they are effective.