Horseback riding therapy in San Marcos provides relief for patients, therapists

When Maureen Lemke finishes a therapy session, she often faces a dilemma of sorts.

"I don't know who got more therapy–me or the client," Lemke said.

Lemke provides therapeutic riding for people with disabilities at Always Wanted A Riding Experience, or A.W.A.R.E.

A.W.A.R.E. began as an idea in 1986 in the mind of Cathy Hovey, a former special needs teacher at San Marcos High School who had a penchant for all things equestrian.

Hovey read about the growing popularity of hippotherapy–physical therapy that uses a horse's movements to mimic the feeling of the human gait–and wanted to see if her students would benefit from it, Lemke said.

Hovey was happy enough with the results that she started A.W.A.R.E. The organization continued growing, and by the early 1990s, it became clear that a larger facility was necessary. Because of a donation of land by the McCoy's Corp. and the late Garland Warren, the founder of Sac 'N Pac convenience stores, A.W.A.R.E. was able to move to a facility that includes stables, an education room and a corral.

Riding therapy exercises people's muscles used for walking, and Lemke said this is especially meaningful for those who use wheelchairs or have difficulty walking.

At the organization's facility off Centerpoint Road in San Marcos, the corral is dotted with the evidence of A.W.A.R.E.'s work. A large wooden ramp leads to an elevated platform where clients who use wheelchairs can mount the horses. Poles are lined from one end of the corral to the other, and the more advanced riders learn to weave through them.

The horses, with names such as Junior, Happee and Spunky, form deep bonds with their riders, Lemke said.

Lemke grew close to one horse, Monty, whose trot is so jolting she likened it to "a milkshake machine." Monty is one of the strongest horses at the facility, and when his owner announced he was for sale and a prospective buyer would be visiting, Lemke knew what she had to do.

"We were very dependent on him, so I told the owner I would bring her a check over the weekend so we could keep him," she said. "I bought him just so he could stay here."

Amy Marchut's first interaction with A.W.A.R.E. came when she volunteered at a Special Olympics event being held at the facility two years ago. Since that time, she has been a regular at the facility, where she spends 10 to 20 hours each week helping clients ride the horses.

Marchut has seen the effects that riding therapy has had on A.W.A.R.E.'s clients. Some nonverbal clients began talking, one younger client who was having trouble eating regularized his diet, and many of the clients have significantly strengthened their core muscles from the therapy, she said.

"I leave my job stressed to the max, and I pull up [to A.W.A.R.E.] and shift gears, and it's all about the rider and all about making sure they have a great experience," Marchut said. "By the time I leave for the night, I completely forgot that I had a workday before."

Those interested in volunteering with A.W.A.R.E. or enrolling a patient may call 512-754-6773. No prior experience with horses or special needs individuals is necessary. A.W.A.R.E. charges $30 for each 45-minute lesson.

Hippotherapy through the years

Physicians have long considered horseback riding to be a beneficial exercise, but it has only been in recent decades that hippotherapy has evolved into a formal treatment option.

460–377 B.C. — Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician, writes about natural exercise and mentions horseback riding.

1780 — French doctor C.J. Tissot regards "riding at the walk" as the most beneficial horse gait in his book, "Medical and Surgical Gymnastics."

1952 — Liz Hartel wins a silver medal for Denmark at the Helsinki Olympics in equestrian sports and tells the world how riding helped her recover from polio.

1960s — Therapeutic riding centers gain popularity in Europe, Canada and the United States.

1969 — The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association is founded in the United States.

1970s — Physical therapists in the United States begin developing treatments using a horse's movements.

1986 — Cathy Hovey founds A.W.A.R.E. in San Marcos.

1992 — The American Hippotherapy Association forms.

1708 Centerpoint Road, San Marcos, 512-754-6773,