BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Thanks to Harley, Denver, Lacey and the other horses at Timberwolff Stables, a 6-year-old boy is able to walk around school without assistance or fear of falling – a vast improvement from when he began hippotherapy three years ago.
Amy Jackson, the boy’s mother, is a physical therapist who sought out hippotherapy – which comes from the Greek word “hippos,” meaning horse – to help her son gain core strength and balance so that he could be safer when entering preschool.
When a horse walks, the way the human muscles work while sitting on the horse mimics the muscles a human would use while walking, Jackson explained. The horse’s human-like gait pattern has been shown to improve the gait of riders in addition to sensory processing, and visual, auditory and movement senses.
“You can’t get the same result sitting on an exercise ball,” she said. “This made a huge difference. My son would go from falling quite often when making turns or changing direction to having a really significant improvement in his mobility. It’s been good for his quality of life – way beyond our expectations.”
Now 6, Jackson’s son continues to participate in the hippotherapy program every other week, setting goals to improve his balance and muscle control.
The Jacksons are among hundreds of families who have come through Timberwolff Stables in the past 15 years. Now-retired teachers Tom and Patty Wolff decided to open their Providence Township barn for the program, in which physical, occupational, speech and other licensed therapists utilize their horses to guide children ages 2-18 through exercises.
Patty, who taught children with learning disabilities for 30 years with Toledo Public Schools, is a certified therapeutic riding instructor.
The Wolffs also recruit two or three volunteers per child to walk alongside and help the therapists as children sit on pads atop the horses – in order to feel the movement of the horse even better.
“We have some amazing people who do a lot for the program,” Patty said of the volunteers who fill in up to 25 sessions a week.
The Wolffs take care of six horses, keeping them fed, exercised and in good health. The program covers most of the costs, but not the purchase of a new horse or emergency veterinary care. Last year, the Wolffs obtained 19-year-old Sage.
“He’s got the perfect personality for this – he’s patient, calm and has good ground manners,” Patty said. “He can put up with kids sometimes screaming and moving around a lot or toys being thrown.”
A few months ago, a Michigan State University surgeon determined that Sage needed teeth removed – and then four more teeth. When he returned from the surgeries, Sage then had breathing issues, and the vet discovered the horse had a guttural pouch infection in his throat latch area. Two more surgeries were needed, and he was in the MSU vet hospital for 10 days. The bill was over $12,000, so the Wolffs’ daughters started a GoFundMe account at gofundme.com/f/help-sage-get-his-surgery, raising $3,585 so far. Kwapich Real Estate Company matched the donations made.
The Wolffs were then surprised to learn that the St. Patrick/St. Louis Knights of Columbus Council 17113, based out of Grand Rapids, had decided to use funds raised through Tootsie Roll sales to benefit Timberwolff Stables. Last week, KOC members Kenny Schenk and Bob Owens presented a check for $1,000 to the Wolffs, explaining that the KOC regularly solicits donations for programs that help children with intellectual and physical disabilities.
“We do this one Tootsie Roll at a time,” Owens said.
The local council, based out of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church of Grand Rapids, decided to take up the program last year, and Timber-wolff Stables is the first beneficiary.
The Wolffs never imagined that the program would be continuing after 15 years. The decision to open up their barn for hippotherapy has influenced their daughters’ choices in careers as well. Both had worked as volunteers alongside the children in the hippotherapy program while they were teenagers. Whitney Wolff is now getting her Ph.D. in biomechanics, basing her master’s thesis on an aspect of hippotherapy. Jordan Kwapich is the client services coordinator for The Ability Center’s Assistance Dogs program.
For clients like Jackson, the devotion that the Wolffs have shared with the horses and the children makes all the difference.
“I can tell Tom and Patty have put their heart and soul into it. The safety and care of the horses, and the impact of the program on each child, is a top priority for them,” Jackson said. “Obviously, it’s not just a business – they use them for good.”
For more information, visit www.timberwolffstables.com.