Michelle Murphy is not sure where her 4-year-old daughter’s developmental delays will lead but she knows one thing — Kaylie responds to horses.
Now she’s hopeful that her daughter will take that to a new level under the guidance Cheryl Cleaves, who has started SpiritHorse Therapeutic Riding Center of Canton.
“We’re kind of taking this journey with her this year,” Murphy said. “It’s bringing out so much in her. The horses help her speak.”
Cleaves said that is no coincidence or isolated incident.
“The motion of the horses really helps them with the undeveloped part of the brain,” Cleaves said.
Cleaves has seen it over and over again, including with Kaylie, who has visited the First Co. Governor’s Horse Guards in Avon, where Cleaves works part time at the Governor's Horse Guards in Avon, as a part-time agricultural worker and horse caretaker.
“Her demeanor changed incredibly,” Cleaves said.
An avid horse rider for years, Cleaves has witnessed the calming presence horses can have on children, including her youngest son, who also has developmental delays.
She and husband Jeffrey Cleaves have spent the past several years creating a farm from scratch on 40 acres off Morgan Road in Canton.
There are a few goats, chickens and other animals but horses were always a big part of the plan.
“My husband and I always loved horses,” she said.
As she spent time helping her youngest son with some developmental delays and met people like Murphy, Cleaves knew she wanted to help children and others.
With her own son, she was unable to get into other therapeutic riding programs due to long waiting lists.
She said her experiences and connections showed the need and it was one she wanted to fill.
“I’ve always wanted to do this,” she said.
So recently she and Donna Manning, of Berlin, traveled to Texas to study under Charles I. Fletcher, who started the SpiritHorse program. Both received certification and Manning will teach at the Canton center and sit on its Board of Directors.
The lessons the center will provide are much more than simple pony rides but rather a form of equine assisted health care, with the approval of a health-care professional, such as a family doctor or therapist. As SpiritHorse certified instructors, she and Manning following specific steps catered to each disability. The also keep track of the progress for the health-care professionals, teachers and family. During private lessons, each client, to the best of their ability, will perform tasks, such as grooming, mounting the saddle and leading the horse.
The lessons will often involve time in a ring and on a trail. Cleaves will use English saddles since it is easier for those with disabilities. There’s even techniques for those afraid of the horses.
“We’re empowering them,” she said. “They are in charge of this big animal.”
Initially Cleaves will work with those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and eventually with conditions such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis and veterans with Post-traumatic stress disorder. She will also work with people recovering from situations such as domestic violence or drug abuse.
Future plans also call for the center having its own facility next to the family’s Highline Farm at 174 Morgan Road.
The goal is to develop a peaceful atmosphere that helps the patients relax.
Cleaves owns three horses, one of which, Lucky, a 16-year-old quarter horse, has been deemed appropriate to work with patients and is appropriate for some children and small adults.
Eventually, she also plans to acquire more animals, especially retired ponies, whose demeanor and size works well for smaller kids.
Cleaves estimates she can initially work with about 10 clients. Eventually she hopes to work with as many as 30 a week. Another important goal is to receive enough support and grants to offer programs free of charge like the center in Texas.
By next spring, she hopes the center will be operating at full speed.
Cleaves said those in the community who know about the center are already extremely supportive.
In turn, many are happy to help, including Murphy, who is also looking forward to her daughter working with Cleaves.
“She’s just really energetic,” Murphy said. “Her passion is awesome.”
Those interested in the program or helping the center can contact Cleaves at firstname.lastname@example.org.