A moon-faced boy sits atop a bay quarter horse, surrounded by a trio of adults who speak words of challenge and encouragement.
“Now I’m going to try to push you off,” one of the grownups says as the horse traces a circle in the sand at the REACH Therapeutic Riding Center near McGregor. The boy, E.J. Muñiz, giggles and plays along, pushing back against the therapist’s hand.
E.J., 11, needs plenty of attention as he learns to balance and strengthen the muscles on his left side that have been weakened by cerebral palsy.
The horse, Chico, needs almost no attention at all. He’s calm, unflustered by the unpredictable movements of the boy on his back or the grownups crowded around him. He moves or stops on cue, brisk and unobtrusive as a butler.
“Chico is a rock star,” said Kristin Bolfing-Volcik, executive director of the nonprofit equine therapy center. “He’s one of the best. Therapists like him because he has so much movement. He walks really fast, walks with purpose, but when you ask him to stand stock still with all these people around him, he will. He wants to please you. … Our riders have seizures on him all the time, or throw balls at the back of his head, and it doesn’t bother him.”
That unflappable disposition is no accident.
This spring, Chico retired from more than a decade of service as a patrol horse in Cameron Park, where he became accustomed to all manner of distractions — crowds, fireworks, unruly teenagers, motorcycles, even drones. At 15, he was beginning to have some joint issues from patrolling the rough terrain, so the city released him into the care of his longtime keeper and buddy, Park Ranger Lanny French.
But it turned out Chico wasn’t ready to be put out to pasture. An employee of the nonprofit therapy center struck up a conversation with French, who agreed to loan Chico for an indefinite period.
“If he can continue to serve, that’s really great,” French said. “The reason he’s such a good fit for that is that he’s seen and done so much. Horses like that aren’t everywhere.”
Chico works with children who have mental and physical disabilities, including autism and spina bifida. He also works with a much different population: combat veterans from the Waco Veterans Affairs hospital and Fort Hood. Many of those veterans have found that riding and working with horses helps them manage post-traumatic stress disorder, Bolfing-Volcik said.
“They know they need help,” she said. “They learn patience and how to control their emotions. … If they’re local, they often come back as volunteers. They say it changes their life.”
REACH, one of a handful of equine therapy operations in Central Texas, is preparing to celebrate its decade anniversary in April at its home on 1007 Camp Road, at the former Camp Val Verde.
The organization works with local therapy providers, supplementing their clinical work with “hippotherapy,” the use of assisted riding to strengthen muscles. Some clients start as early as 3 years old, and at first some are unable even to lift their head off their chest. In time, they may progress to “therapeutic riding,” in which they can ride more independently.
Bolfing-Volcik said the movement of a horse mimics human hip movements and helps those with physical disabilities learn balance and strengthen muscles.
“You’re using so many muscles when you’re riding a horse,” she said. “They get off and they’re sore. They don’t realize they’re doing therapy.”
The professional use of horses for therapy dates back at least to 1969, with the founding of the accrediting organization now known as PATH, or the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. The organization accredits 877 members, including 615 nonprofits.
E.J.’s grandfather, Emmitt Herrera, has watched the boy’s progress through hippotherapy for the last three years, and he was there Thursday, when E.J. “graduated” to therapeutic riding. He said the boy suffered from a head injury in a wreck before he was born, and the muscles in his left side didn’t develop properly.
“Since he started this, there’s not so much back pain,” Herrera said. “My wife said he grew an inch, he stretched out. They had to cut down the elevator shoe they’d given him on his left foot. … It’s helped him a lot, praise God, and he loves the people out there. He can’t wait to come out here.”
E.J. said he is looking forward to being able to ride on his own in the new year.
“I really do like riding horses,” he said, sitting atop Chico. “I find it really fun. It helps me get used to my left hand and foot. … I like going outside a lot. I don’t get to go outside much because there’s not a lot for me to do outside.”
He was surprised to hear that Chico, his usual horse, was previously known to the public as a park horse.
“I did not know that,” he said.
French has been riding the city’s other park horse and is still shopping for a replacement for Chico. In the meantime, has gone out to check on his old pal every few weeks.
“There’s a familiarity when I visit,” he said. “I do think he remembers me. He doesn’t have pictures of me up in the stall or anything. We tend to humanize horses. But I think he knows me.”
French said the soft sand of the riding ring minimizes the stress on Chico’s body, and he sees no reason to call Chico home anytime soon.
“If we can help out doing things that help kids and soldiers, I couldn’t be happier,” he said.