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Equine encouragement
Riding program a form of therapy
Dustins Camp 5 es
Lynn Brecht and her son, Dustin Thomas, take the saddle off of Tony Thursday morning at Brecht Stables & Dustin’s Place. - photo by Emily Saunders
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For more information on how to enroll or volunteer at the therapeutic riding classes, visit
Patrick Archer sat high in the saddle on a recent afternoon as a shy smile spread across his face.

“What do you say, Patrick?” his riding instructor Lynn Brecht asked.

The 5-year-old stayed silent and the horse stayed still.

“I’m going to tickle you,” Brecht said, finally getting an explosive response.

“Walk, Tony,” Archer yelled, cueing the horse and its walker to move forward.

The commands are one of the aspects of Archer’s therapeutic horse riding, something his mother said has helped immensely with difficulties associated with his sensory issues.

Brecht started offering the therapeutic classes to children with special needs after seeing how much help and joy it brought to her 8-year-old son, Dustin Thomas, who has Down syndrome.

The first time Thomas climbed on a horse, his mother saw the same connection that she’s had with horses since she was a child.

It only took her a little while to want to offer that experience to other special needs children, founding Brecht Stables & Dustin’s Place in north Forsyth.

“It just clicked one day,” she said. “It was like, ‘Why am I not doing this, why am I not sharing it with other parents?’”

Brecht has been holding therapeutic riding classes for almost two years, usually during once-a-week lessons.

Last week and this week, she’s running camps for special needs children, followed by two weeks of Western riding summer camp for typical children.

“Yeehaw,” Thomas shouted from atop Indie.

Thomas has grown close to the horses, taking care of them, removing their saddles and even learning to command them to trot.

But it’s the results from his therapy that have been the most encouraging aspect for Brecht and other parents.

“He loves it,” Brecht said. “He was actually opted out of [physical therapy] last year because he’s been doing so well riding Tony.”

The riding therapy works by bringing in elements of many different programs.

Children sit in different positions on the saddle, bringing toys from one spot to another and setting them down while atop the horse.

“It helps a lot with balance, center of gravity and body recognition, where your body is at in space,” she said, adding that all of those often pose challenges for children with special needs.

Also, sitting on a horse naturally aligns the pelvis the way it should when a person walks, she said.

Brecht also brings in speech therapy by having the children use verbal commands to move and stop the horses.

“I have one boy that has severe autism and is pretty much nonverbal,” she said. “And for the first time the other day his mom heard him say, ‘Walk, Tony.’ It was clear as day. His mom started crying.”

Other parents have seen the results too. One of them is Archer’s mom, Shannon Archer, who is also a special education teacher at Cumming Elementary, where she taught Thomas.

She had enrolled her son in a therapeutic riding class in Dahlonega with not much success. But working in the calm, one-on-one environment with Brecht has helped his speech, his behavior and his confidence, she said.

Though she recently discovered he’s allergic to horses, Shannon Archer said she just washes his hands thoroughly and gives him allergy medication.

“There’s no way I was going to stop it because it’s benefitting him so much,” she said.

Shannon Archer also donates her time volunteering at the special needs classes, along with several others.

Brecht said the program wouldn’t be possible without several people to walk the horses and help with the children.

Lorraine Wilson had never been around horses, but she had worked with special needs children before.

Having been laid off, she was looking for something else to do last summer. She’s since returned to the work force, but Wilson still spends her spare time helping with the children.

“Seeing their faces on the horse, they just light up,” she said. “They come out of their shells more.”

Scott Henderson, 13, said he would rather spend his summer watching the children ride than doing anything else.

While two kids were taking a break from riding, Henderson worked with them on sensory activities by playing and keeping the kids constantly involved.

Another young volunteer, Sarah Mulligan, 13, said she loves seeing how the children react to different things.

Mulligan, who has two younger sisters with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, said the joy of working with special children definitely comes with challenges.

“You have to have a lot of patience,” she said, “and you have to be able to tolerate random emotions.”

While Brecht has received much help from her volunteers, not yet being a nonprofit has hindered her ability to expand the program.

She’s looking for a lawyer to help draft the necessary bylaws to expand the program, a barn of her own and, as always, more volunteers.

Each horse requires two people — one to walk it and another to guard the other side — plus the instructor to direct the therapy.

Only Thomas rides without someone on both sides, feeling comfortable atop his favorite horse, Tony.

The other children could soon follow.

“I’ve never had a kid in therapy who didn’t love being on the horse,” Brecht said.