Healing Horses: Manistee County Barn Provides Equine Therapy to Special Kids

Monday, seven very special kids celebrated their successes on the saddle.

This summer, they’ve been riding horses at the Northern Pathways Equine Center in Manistee County. It’s all part of Hoof Prints, a specialized therapy program for children with developmental and physical challenges.

Mary Vandorp runs the program which helps kids gain confidence and develop mobility while riding a horse. The program focuses on what they can do, as opposed to what they cannot. Vandorp and her team of volunteers help kids become familiar with the horses until finally they can saddle up and ride them slowly around the ring. The activity builds balance and strength while they’re also conquering something new.

Monday night, they got to show their parents and loved ones everything they’ve learned and how far they have come.

Grace Howles, 9, was all smiles as she rode on top of her dear friend Nana, the horse. Grace is bubbly and energetic and has down syndrome. She recently had surgeries that made her a little weaker, but the equine therapy has built her muscles back up.

“It’s a great program to give some confidence to some of these kids that need it,” said Grace’s mother Janet Howles. “We’re finally able to move and get out and do some exercise. She’s excited every time we come here.”

These success stories and memories are all part of a program that fills a major need in the community.

“A lot our families tell us there aren’t a lot of things that are handicap accessible that they can do,” said Manistee County ISD physical therapist Becki Kidd. “But we’ve found therapeutic riding is very helpful at certain ages.”

Vandorp was a therapist for many years and opened her barn as a way to help others connect and heal in a different kind of way.

“Who can’t fall in love with a horse? My favorite part is seeing the kids grow and seeing them happy,” said Vandorp. “Watching miracles happen. Who can’t love tha?”

This summer was the first season of Hoof Prints but she hopes to continue it for many years to come.