About six years ago, using the funds from her savings account and a borrowed horse, Laura Gorcester founded a nonprofit to help children with disabilities find more self-awareness and confidence. 

Gorcester said she found refuge when being with her horse and wanted to offer the same to children struggling with behavioral, emotional or cognitive challenges. Empowering Strides, located just outside of Woodinville, works to create that sense of connection.

“I volunteered with nonprofits before, but I didn’t think I’d run one myself,” Gorcester said. “I was lucky to have people who were willing to help me with everything from planning to structure to obtaining new horses.”

Hippotherapy— the use of equine movement in occupational, physical and speech-language therapies— is proven to offer several benefits for patients, she said. The treatment, also known as therapeutic horsemanship, helps teach her clients how to positively interact with a horse.

“It allows children the freedom to express themselves how they want to without being judged,” she said. 

At first, Gorcester said, she would help two clients a week. Now with four horses, she can offer services for 17 sessions a week. Hippotherapy sessions are typically one-on-one to provide adaptability to the child’s needs, she added.

As a nonprofit organization, she said, Empowering Strides grants about six scholarships for patients each year. 

Another nonprofit in the area, Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center, also uses hippotherapy for those with both physical and mental disabilities.

Little Bit provides adaptive riding for patients in addition to hippotherapy, said Executive Director Paula Del Giudice.

Adaptive riding allows people with disabilities to learn horseback riding skills, Del Giudice said. Little Bit’s hippotherapy is provided by professionally licensed therapists to use the movement of the horse to reach a patient’s goals, she added.

Within the organization, therapists work with over 100 different diagnoses including autism spectrum disorders, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Down syndrome, she said. About 60% of clients are under the age of 18, she said, and the youngest client is 2 years old.

The horses in the program can offer clients a 360-degree movement for the human pelvis as they sit on them, she said. 

“You get the benefit of that movement even though you’re not walking, but it acts as though you are walking,” Del Giudice said.

Hippotherapy can help build leg and core strength, which is essential for being able to walk. She said a few young children in the program were told by other doctors that they would not be able to walk again. As the patients built up their core strength, she said, they were able to take their first steps at Little Bit.

Other young children who could not sit up by themselves can typically sit for longer periods of time after sessions, she noted.

Besides the physical aspect, she said, the client and horse can create a lasting bond.

“There's just that natural bond of being with the horse that is so endearing,” she said. “It also makes it fun for patients. It's something they look forward to, rather than something that they resist.”

The COVID-19 pandemic paused most of Little Bit’s services aside from telehealth offerings, Del Giudice said. Once outdoor gatherings were permitted by Washington state, patients could visit the facility again with safety protocols in place.

“Currently, we are just trying to ride the wave through the pandemic and make sure that we're able to offer the services to as many people as possible,” she said.

Some clients declined in progress significantly during the pandemic because they were not receiving treatment, Del Giudice said.

“When vaccines became more prevalent and we were able to bring more folks back into the program, I remember seeing family members just saying it was the happiest day of their lives,” she said.

Empowering Strides experienced similar needs from its clients during the pandemic, Gorcester said. The waitlist continued to grow at a more rapid pace, she said, which was difficult to accommodate as the only licensed professional in the program. Although, some volunteers stepped up to help. 

For Little Bit, its history reaches back to 1976. Margaret Dunlap, a Woodinville local with multiple sclerosis, started the hippotherapy program to help others find relief from their conditions, Del Giudice said.

Dunlap named the program after her horse, Little Bit. Del Giudice said the nonprofit is now one of the largest in the United States.

Both Empowering Strides and Little Bit accept volunteers; horse experience is not necessary.

To learn more about Empowering Strides, visit empoweringstrides.com/. More information about Little Bit can be found at littlebit.org/.

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