In the covered outdoor arena at InStride Therapy in Nokomis, Hailee Kurtz, 25, sits tall on a sorrel quarter horse, her own copper hair poking out beneath a helmet. She strokes Doc, her usual mount, and chats with the support team around her as they wait for the physical therapist’s direction. At birth, the umbilical cord wrapped around Kurtz’s neck briefly deprived her brain of oxygen, causing cerebral palsy. On the ground, she uses a wheelchair; she can stand but struggles to walk on her own. On Doc, “it’s like you’re walking, but without effort,” she says. “Basically, freedom.”
Kurtz has been riding with InStride since age 2—almost as long as the nonprofit has been offering hippotherapy (from hippos, the Greek word for horse). InStride dates its founding to 1994, when physical therapist Mary Nastan was running a small hippotherapy program out of a Nokomis barn. She partnered with businesswoman and equestrienne Donna Blem and landowner Sam Smith to create a therapeutic riding center.
Hippotherapy doesn’t look like horseback riding for show and speed. It’s done at a walk, usually with pads and blankets instead of saddles. In consultation with other clinicians, a therapist determines which exercises address client needs, a complex calculus of variables. First, there are the riders, who range in age from toddlers to middle-aged adults. Next, their challenges: strokes, brain injuries, Down syndrome, attention deficit disorder, heart conditions, multiple sclerosis, amputation, developmental delays, vision loss and more. Goals vary and may include core strengthening, balance, social skills, or sensory integration. InStride’s contracted physical, occupational and speech therapists then play matchmaker, considering each horse’s size, stride and temperament.
A horse with an uneven gait, for instance, often pairs well with an autistic human. “The quirks tell the rider to pay attention,” says physical therapist Pat Heath, who presides at the edge of the arena in shorts and a pink T-shirt. People with cerebral palsy, on the other hand, may need a horse with an even gait, stretching muscles on both sides of the body.
“Some riders cry or yell, and some horses won’t tolerate that,” says Heath. InStride screens its horses, which are generally unflappable, but they’re still horses, sometimes startled by a honking car or a wailing child.
“When kids get upset, 95 percent it’s separation from a parent, and 5 percent fear,” says Heath. Within a month, she says, “the crying usually stops.”
Finally, each therapist choreographs the pace, pattern and rider position for the session. The leader, usually an InStride employee, directs the horse with a rope while volunteer side walkers lay a forearm across the rider’s thigh, the even pressure “helping the body feel itself,” Heath says, and adding to a sense of safety. Clients may ride forward, backward, side sitting, on hands and knees, even lying down.
“A speech therapist may have a child who drools face the tail of the horse,” says Doris Berkey, InStride’s director of development. “This changes the position of the diaphragm. Now when the child speaks, no drool.”
For Kurtz and many others with cerebral palsy, rigid muscles hinder fluid movement. The ambling of a warm horse massages a rider’s stiff limbs, loosening muscles, relieving pain, helping joints align better. At InStride, clients may stretch on a Theraplate or other warmup equipment inside the barn, but “those same exercises are six times more effective on a horse,” says Berkey. “A rider experiences 1,200 to 1,600 kinetic movements in 30 minutes.”
Kurtz’s dad, remodeling contractor Marlin Kurtz, says he notices that she’s “much more limber” after her half-hour sessions twice a week.
Longtime InStride rider Liz Chandler agrees. She, too, has neuromuscular difficulties and relies on a walker. “I wouldn’t give this up for anything,” Chandler says.
“I honestly believe she wouldn’t be walking upright if she didn’t do this,” her mother, Joan Chandler, says.
Hippotherapy facilitates emotional as well as physical healing. “A lot of these kids don’t have a lot of feel-good time,” says therapist Heath. “Life is chaotic.” She knows this from personal as well as professional experience; her son rode in Mary Nastan’s earliest program. But riders bond with their mount, a relationship rich in touch and smell. “They can relax on the horses,” Heath says.
“A horse is attuned to human emotion, even more than a dog,” says Berkey.
Bradenton mom Natalie N. appreciates the full spectrums of benefits for her two youngest sons, both InStride clients. (She prefers not to broadcast her last name since she adopted each boy from foster care.) Adopted kids have all experienced loss or trauma, she says, which often results in “wonky neurology,” brains geared to freeze or fight or flee. Weakness in a cerebral hemisphere had impaired balance in both boys, and both have struggled with self-regulation. AJ, a wiry, thoughtful 10-year-old, wore braces on his legs for a while. Liam, a stocky whirlwind at 4, wrestles with impulsiveness and disregards safety. He needs near-constant redirection. “Protest is his first reaction to life,” says Natalie. A behavioral pediatrician prescribed hippotherapy.
It’s a long drive from the family’s home in Palmetto, but worth the time and effort, Natalie says—even though last year she had to pull AJ out of his fourth-grade class every Wednesday morning because of limited appointment availability. This year, they landed a more convenient slot.
AJ admits he felt scared to ride. At home he has two dogs and two cats, “but horses are way bigger than dogs. I was talking to the riders, though, and then I forgot my fears,” he says. AJ’s stubbornness receded as he rode Merlin, a paint horse and former barrel racer. Now AJ is walking without braces.
“I feel calmer,” AJ says. “My self-control is controlling my body.”
Liam still tears around, but less so after riding. “When Liam first came, he wouldn’t talk,” says Natalie. Now he greets everyone, human and equine. Natalie says she didn’t notice Liam’s progress at first: "You’re just Mom, checking the boxes, making sure they have every chance for a neurological gain.” Seeing photographs taken of Liam in the arena brought her up short. “There I was expecting my little child with his signature snarl—and in every picture he’s smiling.”
For Natalie, too, the half hour at InStride offers a break. “I’m a referee 24/7,” she says. Occasionally on the way down, she stops at McDonald’s as a treat, and the kids eat at the picnic table by the barn. It’s a pleasant place, Natalie says, “superclean, the horses well cared for, and the volunteers make it a joy to be here.” During the session she may sit in the car with her cellphone making appointments or catching up on Facebook. “Sometimes I just get to pee without company,” she says.
Over the years InStride has expanded its outreach, partnering with organizations such as Easter Seals, Loveland Center, United Cerebral Palsy, The Haven, and the Dream Center in Bradenton. From the start it established a relationship with Sarasota County’s Oak Park School for children with disabilities and now trailers horses to the campus every Thursday. Berkey tells the story of an Oak Park student who refused to put on a helmet and therefore was not allowed to mount a horse at school. InStride sent helmets to her house so that everyone in her family could wear them at the dinner table until the girl no longer found it unbearably strange.
Although hippotherapy remains InStride’s core service, the organization also offers therapeutic riding, traditional equestrian disciplines or riding for people with disabilities. For more than 15 years, a team of a dozen Special Olympians has trained in the covered arena (three hours a week during the winter season) and competed in regional and state games. People with intellectual or development disabilities also practice job skills around the barn, handling tools and following directions.
InStride’s literacy initiative, “Reading with Little Red,” welcomes children to Nokomis or travels into the community. Kids who may have never ventured into a rural setting full of trees and birds meet and read to a horse, learn about grooming, make art, and return home with a book to keep. Newer programs in Equine Assisted Learning teach leadership and communication skills to clients recovering from trauma—sex trafficking survivors, for instance, and veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If a horse can help, InStride will try to work out the details.
InStride fields so many referrals from pediatricians, clinicians and therapists that there’s a roughly 25-client waiting list. A half-hour session costs $125; insurance, if available, pays about $56. InStride awards scholarships to make up the difference.
So, like many nonprofits, InStride is always looking for angels. As the old equestrian joke warns, “If you love to ride, marry money.”
Donations from individuals and foundations enabled InStride to buy its current campus, 62 acres off Ranch Road, and add the Sunshine Natural Wellbeing Arena and a 28-stall barn with offices in 2012. In August 2018, InStride dedicated a new sensory arena (particularly helpful for people with autism) with a corner dedicated to a late client, 5-year-old Sawyer Gordon, who loved Doc and all the other horses.
“Coming here was something he got to do, not something he had to do,” his mother told the crowd.
A cadre of roughly 85 volunteers helps with maintenance and service, from repairing fencing to mucking out stalls to side walking riders. Many volunteers get their horse fix at InStride. Venice High School senior Lauren Kirby fulfilled her community service requirement at InStride but stayed on, one of the perks being contact with Missy, her onetime mare. Retirees Maggie and Tom Pisano used to keep horses on their five-acre spread in Denver, and when they bought in Calusa Lakes, their realtor told them about InStride. Now they’re side walkers, and Tom, a former educator who also worked with Apple, handles photos and videos. “Horses, kids, technology—it’s the perfect magnet,” he says.
But staff costs run high at InStride—the equine ones. “All the horses do have a job,” says CEO Dana Johnson. He adds that the organization has been “growing its herd,” especially since therapeutic riding and the adult programs attract heavier riders who need bigger mounts. Donations and discounts put horses with impressive resumes within reach; one newcomer to the barn qualified three times for the World Championships. A gift horse is wonderful (as long as it can pass the stress tests full of jangling toys, banging car doors and unnerving simulations). But it’s the upkeep of 19 or so animals that really adds up: insurance, farrier charges, grain, vet care, shavings, barn overhead and more. A half year of hay totals about $15,000, Berkey says.
"If I had my own horse, I’d be riding every day,” says Hailee Kurtz. “On a horse you’re outside. It’s good for health, mind, body, spirit. It’s about being out and about.”
Every six months, the hippotherapy team reevaluates each rider’s goals. Some clients change horses; others graduate to therapeutic riding and other less time- and labor-intensive equestrian activities. But for people like Kurtz with chronic conditions, the physical and emotional gains of the treatment-based rides may need constant renewal.
Kurtz is one of InStride’s many success stories. The staff applauds her as someone “who can advocate for herself.” Supported by a close family, she attended Brentwood Elementary, graduated from Sarasota Christian School, took classes at State College of Florida and Suncoast Technical College, and now works as a Publix cashier.
Yet Kurtz says people still judge her by her disability. Customers sometimes question why she sits at a register. Although she jokes that she has only one ear for rude or mean remarks, she admits that the constant appraisal “lowers my confidence.” Her dad notices that she doesn’t have a lot of friends; she divides most of her time between home and work.
“Growing up, I was never really involved in the disability community,” says Kurtz. In Nokomis, though, she often rode alongside girls her age. She competed in Special Olympics, which gave her a sport, just as her older brother, Garrett, played baseball. (He’s now a Sarasota firefighter.) At a friend’s urging, in 2015, she entered the Miss Wheelchair Florida competition and discovered a passion to speak about “having confidence and not letting things interfere with who you are.”
Kurtz says she would love to write a self-help book. At the moment she’s hatching an online business, the Art of Affirmation, creating canvases full of positive words.
The rides at InStride brighten her week and remind her of her strengths. She values the interactions with everyone.
“It’s about trust,” she says. “You have to trust your horse and leader and side walkers and therapist. For them, it’s not just work, or they’re not just getting hours for school. They care.”
Sarasota writer Sylvia Whitman teaches in the creative writing program at Ringling College of Art and Design. She wrote about Loveland Center in last year’s February issue.