PESOTUM — On a muggy, late-summer evening, Savoy toddler Lincoln Pangburn was at Healing Horse Stables for his weekly ride.
"Whoa, whoa!" he said to a chestnut palomino pony named Rosie.
And the adults gathered to watch, smile and cheer, because Lincoln doesn't say many words.
Saying "whoa" to a pony was progress.
Suzanna Pangburn said she and her husband, Steve, began bringing their 2-year-old son to Healing Horse Stables in Pesotum because he has several health issues and a developmental delay, and his speech therapist suggested they try therapeutic riding for him.
Not only does riding loosen up the verbal logjam, she said, Lincoln loves it.
"When we get there, he almost jumps out of our arms, he's so excited," she added.
If you're unfamiliar with therapeutic riding, Healing Horse Stables defines it as a rider and horse forming a bond and working with an instructor to reach a particular goal.
Stable owners Dorey Riegel and her husband, Terry Plampin, bought their house and barn on 5 acres on County Road 700 East and spent about two years getting ready for their opening this year. They expanded and improved a large outbuilding to serve as an indoor riding arena, installed a hydraulic lift to help anyone with a physical disability get up on horseback, and fenced in the property for their six horses and two ponies, said Plampin, a retired engineer.
"I'm a city boy," he said, as he watched his wife and others lead Lincoln through exercises around the arena. "The largest animals I've ever had close contact with were dogs, so this is quite an adventure for me."
For his wife, it's another story.
Dorey Riegel grew up on a Morgan horse farm in White Heath and has been riding horses since she was 4 years old, she said.
Now she's blending her riding experience with her other professional training. She's also a registered nurse and has earned a master's of divinity degree, and is serving as a youth pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Champaign.
Healing Horse Stables doesn't have a religious affiliation, Riegel said, but she sees it as a spiritual, healing ministry.
She describes horses as spiritual, energetically sensitive and emotionally responsive animals.
"I believe I have always been called to a healing ministry, having studied nursing, and, more recently, ministry," she writes about her work at Healing Horse Stables. "I have a deep faith, and believe that God desires us to be as healed and whole as possible in this life. So while our program is in no way overtly religious, our therapeutic riding program is underpinned with a great deal of prayer. Oftentimes, I invite the riders and staff and volunteers to form a circle, hold hands and set an intention, or pray if they are comfortable, of safety and healing and fun while we are together with the horses."
Starting a therapeutic riding center had been a longtime dream of hers, Riegel said.
She completed a therapeutic riding instructor internship this past year at Kemmerer Village, a school for troubled youths in Assumption, and is now an instructor-in-training with PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International, she said.
Riegel said she's experienced the healing power of horses herself after she was injured in two motor vehicle accidents in 2001.
Riding her mother's Morgan horse, Melody (who is now a senior therapy horse at Healing Horse Stables), Riegel said she found the rhythmic movement helped reintegrate her brain function, soothed her nerves and had a calming effect.
People with a wide range of special needs — those with cerebral palsy, autism, brain injuries, Down syndrome, vision and hearing impairments, spinal injuries, anxiety, veterans suffering from injuries or post traumatic shock disorder, amputees, even troubled teens — stand to benefit from the responsive presence of a horse, according to the stable owners.
Some potential benefits to therapeutic riding: building confidence and self-esteem; increasing balance, mobility and range of motion; improving problem-solving abilities; and providing an empowering feeling.
"Also, for anybody with a movement disorder, the motion stimulates the human spine in the same way as if you were walking," Riegel said.
And, she added, it's fun.
Anyone can come for riding at Healing Horse Stables, Riegel said. For those seeking therapeutic riding, both private sessions and classes are available.
Therapeutic riding sessions are done with three people per rider — a leader and two side-walkers, one on each side of the horse, for added safety, Riegel and Plampin said.
Lisa Morand, youth and teen coordinator for Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation, said that organization is offering a series of therapeutic riding classes for people at Healing Horse Stables in the summer, fall and spring.
"I used to ride horses myself, and the benefit that I got from it was great," Morand said. "Not only does it improve physical skills, but it improves a more mental aspect as well."
Morand said she's already seen benefits for the summer session participants.
Horses and other assistive animals can help shy kids and adults with disabilities come out of their shells, she said.
Riding "can teach them that it is OK to open up, and not everything and everyone is in judgment of all of who they are," she said.
Potential benefits seen by the Champaign County Down Syndrome Network: building better posture, control and socialization, said the organization's secretary, Kim Woolridge of Mahomet.
Woolridge said 12 participants with Down syndrome, ages 6 to 22, are taking the classes at the Pesotum stable in small groups, and the verbal kids have learned to make a horse stop and walk saying "whoa" and "walk," and a nonverbal kid has done the same using body language.
"My goal is to have our kids experience as much as any typically developing child would be able to," she said. "You never know what is going to pique their interest."
Healing Horse Stables is a nonprofit organization (under the umbrella of a Christian charity called the Dunamis Peace Institute) and uses volunteers to help with the horses and during classes and lessons.
More volunteers are always needed, Riegel and Plampin said.
Plampin said private sessions run $45 to $50 each, and group lessons cost less. But he and his wife have a long-term dream of being able to offer therapy to anyone regardless of their ability to pay if they find funding sources.
"We need to develop sources who are as passionate about the activities as we are," he said.
Riegel said she and her husband would also love to provide therapeutic riding and access to horses for troubled youth and foster children, and are searching out connections with community organizations.
Also in their plans: to offer equine-assisted psychotherapy and hippotherapy, which is therapy provided by trained physical, occupational and speech therapists using the movement of a horse.
Lincoln Pangburn was born with a congenital heart defect, for which he underwent surgery, and a brain malformation. He is on the autism spectrum, and about 60 percent of his nourishment comes through a feeding tube, his mother said.
Suzanna Pangburn said she and her husband had been taking Lincoln to Mount Zion in Macon County for therapeutic riding and were happy to find someplace closer to home.
This therapy is working toward more than speech development, she said. It's also helping to strengthen his core, maintain stability and help his breathing support.
"He has a lot of feeding troubles, and we're hoping both of these things will help him eat better," she said.
When he first arrived to ride Rosie and saw horses eating grass, Lincoln started pulling up grass to eat himself, which gave Riegel an idea to interest him in eating food that doesn't come out of a tube: Now at the end of the ride, Lincoln feeds Rosie a piece of carrot.
"We thought he might want to have a bite of carrot, too," Riegel said.
Lincoln uses sign language, but Pangburn said she and her husband typically hear him vocalizing more after they get into the car after he has his riding session.
"Anytime we can get him that interested in an activity and can share that connection with him we get excited, too," she said.
She and her husband hope to see Lincoln grow up to drive a car and live on his own one day, Pangburn said.
"But really we don't know," she added. "That's why we're doing everything we can, literally exhausting all the resources in our community, to give him the opportunity to develop to the fullest."