by marsala rypka
After 25 years of marriage and “praying their hearts out” for a child to come into their lives, Cliff and Debra Bynum were blessed with a 10-day-old little girl, Callie, 16 years ago. A year after adopting Callie, she was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Angelman syndrome that left her unable to speak and with the mental capacity of a 2-year-old.
“When she was 3, Desert Regional Center suggested we bring her to see Laurie Willmott, who founded a nonprofit called Spirit Therapies that provided equine therapy for kids with mental, physical and emotional disabilities.
“When we met Laurie, we knew she was handpicked by God for this purpose,” said Cliff Bynum. “She is accredited and certified by PATH International, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, and great at getting a small child to trust a large horse.”
Callie became Willmott’s first full-time student. She rode a horse named Do It once a week, and four years later, when Callie was 7, her muscles were strong enough to walk on her own for the first time.
Another Spirit child is 5-year-old August, who has cerebral palsy, is visually impaired and in a wheelchair.
“The first couple of times he cried uncontrollably and threw up. It was hot, and he didn’t want to wear a helmet and get on this big horse named Pablo. Then Laurie started singing, “Go, go Pablo, go.” By the third visit he was fine, and now he loves it,” said August’s mom, Alisa.
“Horses give kids wings. They (the horses) don’t care that their legs don’t work,” said Willmott.
And then there’s 10-year-old Skye, who was adopted when he was 10 months old and diagnosed at age 4 with brain damage from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
“Skye can be hyperaggressive, and he has great anxiety about being outdoors where there are bugs. Yet he is calm and peaceful when he’s riding Pablo,” said his mom, Judy.
“Our horses are four-legged therapists,” said Willmott.
“There’s plenty of science behind human-animal interaction. The love relationship kicks in the oxytocin in our bodies, which is a powerful hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter for the brain. It’s called the bonding hormone.”
Spirit Therapies works with adults as well. Francine Catterton is a 39-year-old special education teacher who was born with cerebral palsy.
“I had eight operations on my legs before I was 10 and years of physical therapy,” she said. “Then an injury in college put me in a wheelchair, and doctors said I wouldn’t walk after 30.
“Seven years ago I found Spirit Therapies. … I no longer use a power wheelchair and instead of taking 25 doses of assorted medications daily, I take two medications every three days.”
Willmott has 38 students who ride, but not all horse therapy involves riding. She also is certified by EAGALA, the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, and 13 of her students are enrolled in a program that focuses on ground activities.
On Sept. 1, 2009, Willmott started a program for veterans suffering from PTSD called Horses Healing Heroes.
Tony Jones, a veteran of the Iraq war, heard about Horses Healing Heroes from Dr. Valerie Galante at the Nellis Air Force Base Mental Health Facility, who is on the board of directors at Spirit Therapies.
“Before experiencing multiple concussions and brain trauma in Iraq, I was a very social person. When I returned home, I thought everyone could see my mental deficiencies,” said Jones. “Working with my horse Buddy boosted my confidence because he wasn’t going to reject, criticize or judge me. There was only mutual trust and respect.”
Willmott explained that horses communicate through body language.
“They sense our emotions, negative and positive, and the subtle changes in our body. They are not easily manipulated or bullied. They don’t trust naturally, but if respected, they give respect in return.”
Willmott said horses react to each rider differently. For instance, autistic kids are either extremely withdrawn or outgoing, and the same horse will adjust his behavior and bring the withdrawn child out or calm the hyperactive child down.
Another wounded warrior in the program is Danny, an Army veteran who returned from Vietnam socially dysfunctional and very angry.
“Like many of us, he didn’t like crowds and lived in seclusion with no toleration for others,” said Jones.
“Danny trained to be a jockey when he was younger, and after being away from horses for over 40 years, his VA counselor recommended he go to Spirit Therapies.”
Working with them again has helped Danny relax and become more patient and tolerant. Now he’s a volunteer.
Most adults and parents of children who are physically, mentally, or emotionally disabled; teens with self-esteem issues; sexually abused girls with trust issues; or vets who suffer from PTSD, have no idea Willmott and Spirit Therapies exist. A small nonprofit like Spirit relies on word of mouth, fundraising events, and volunteers like Marti Agassi, who is married to Andre Agassi’s brother, Philip.
“Volunteering at Spirit is something my teenage daughter and I have enjoyed doing together for three years,” said Agassi “Spirit is our happy place. Laurie’s commitment, sacrifices and passion for the kids, and the horses, is humbling and inspiring to watch. I’ve seen the tears of frustration, as well as joy, during the children’s therapy sessions. Their triumphant smiles will forever be ingrained in my heart. I will always treasure my memories at Spirit.”
Spirit Therapies holds its 10th annual wine and beer tasting fundraiser, Taste of Spirit, on Oct. 15 at the South Point hotel-casino.
For information about the event, services, or to volunteer go to spirittherapies.org.