SEATTLE — When Christine Beatty watches her daughters ride horseback, she sees things that might not be obvious to others.
“Look at that posture. For me it’s amazing to see how straight she sits,” Beatty said as 7-year-old Mia returned from a trail ride.
Mia, whose cerebral palsy affects both legs and her right arm and hand, wasn’t able to sit up on her own when she first went to the Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center two years ago.
Now she sits, crawls, stands and, with the help of therapists and her parents, is taking steps.
Beatty also has seen Mia’s 10-year-old sister, Megan – who has Down syndrome and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder – learn to stay calm and focused, interact with a riding instructor and give verbal commands to a horse
Mia and Megan are among the 222 children and adults with disabilities who, with varying degrees of help, ride horses at Little Bit’s new location near Redmond.
The nonprofit’s move this month from Woodinville, Wash., to the new Dunmire Stables, on 17 acres, will give it the capacity to serve twice as many riders and shorten its waiting list of up to two years.
Built on the site of a former thoroughbred facility, Little Bit’s new quarters include a large covered arena, stalls for 41 horses, a tack barn, a building with therapy rooms, lounge and office cubicles designed to look like horse stalls.
Little Bit won’t be able to increase the number of riders before next year, Executive Director Kathy Alm said, because it must first raise additional operating funds, hire more staff, recruit more volunteers and select and train new horses. The Seattle Police Department recently donated Blaze, a retired police horse, to the center.
Mia’s parents waited more than a year and a half after a physical therapist referred them to Little Bit, the largest therapeutic riding center in the Northwest.
“That’s the hard part,” Beatty said. “There’s this thing everyone says is fabulous for your child, everybody’s trying to get you in – and you have to wait.”
Little Bit was founded in 1976 by Margaret Dunlap and riding instructor Debra Powell Adams when they saw that riding seemed to slow the progression of Dunlap’s multiple sclerosis.
There isn’t much published research demonstrating – or debunking – the effectiveness of horseback therapy, said pediatric neurologist and Little Bit advisory-board member Stephen Glass.
But he has seen “absolutely dramatic” improvement in many children, and the practice has been increasingly accepted by physicians and physical and occupational therapists, Glass said.
Some young riders, like Mia, receive what’s called hippotherapy – after “hippo,” the Greek word for horse – in which the horse’s motion is used by a physical or occupational therapist to achieve specific treatment goals.
Most of the riders at Little Bit – including some who have ridden there 30 years or more – are there for adaptive riding, in which they learn to ride more independently, under the guidance of an instructor.
Many riders, like Megan Beatty, start with hippotherapy and graduate to adaptive riding.
Sue Lamoree began adaptive riding 14 years ago after transverse myelitis put her in a wheelchair and made it more difficult for her to use her hands.
When she jokingly told an instructor she wanted to become “a real cowgirl,” he responded, “You can do whatever you put your mind to do.”
After getting over her initial terror of horses, Lamoree learned to love them. She said she has gained a sense of empowerment – and greater strength to drive her van with hand controls.
As demand began to outstrip Little Bit’s capacity to take on new riders, its staff and board in 2007 launched an $11 million capital campaign. The honorary campaign chairs, retired investment-fund manager Mike Dunmire and his wife, Phyllis, contributed $3 million to buy the Redmond, Wash., property.
Retired Major League baseball player John Olerud and his wife, Kelly Olerud, chaired the campaign and made a donation from the Jordan Fund, named after their daughter, who has been a Little Bit rider for years.
The Oleruds agreed to help with fundraising, John said, because of the improvement they saw in Jordan, who was born in 2000 with a chromosome abnormality. She began riding at 3, despite her father’s doubts.
“How is that going to work?” he wondered about horseback therapy. “My daughter can’t sit up on her own. How is she going to get up on the back of a horse?”
Olerud watched as a therapist and a volunteer held her in place atop a horse, while another volunteer behind the animal controlled its gait with a long line. Soon he saw her core strength improve, and she learned to sit up. Now 12, Jordan is able to walk, but not talk.
Lamoree also met her husband, who was a volunteer, at Little Bit. “I had never been married before,” she said. “I was 50 when we met, and was never sure when I would meet that knight in shining armor. Here he appeared in the horse barn – how perfect.”
Alm, who has run Little Bit since 1999, said she, too, has been lucky.
“The powerful connection between human and horse is hard to explain,” Alm said, “but having watched these children and adults with disabilities improve and blossom over the years, it’s hard to deny.
“That’s why I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world, because I get to see that every single day.”