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Published June 24, 2010, 08:00 AM

Pine Lake Pastures helps make miracles

Miracles happen on a small horse farm in Erin Prairie Township.

Miracles happen on a small horse farm in Erin Prairie Township.

Two children with special needs spoke for the first time there. Others have taken their first steps there, even one who was told he’d never walk.

“We do see a lot of miracles,” said Cheri Morton, owner of Pine Lake Pastures for six years.

Pine Lake Pastures offers free horse therapy to kids and adults with special needs. Many are severely disabled, diagnosed with autism, Asperger’s disorder, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, brain trauma and obsessive compulsive disorder, Morton said.

Morton said working with people who have special needs is her calling. She said she’s been in the field for about 15 years, but her educational background is in business and communications. Assisting her at Pine Lake Pastures are Volunteer Coordinator Nikke Hafemeyer, neighbors Terry and Carol McKinley, Morton’s daughters Hannah, 14, Rebecca, 13, and Mookie, 11, and lots of volunteers.

Each week 35 families from St. Croix County and the Twin Cities make the trip to Pine Lake Pastures so that the special needs members can spend time with their horses. Morton pairs up horse and rider by personalities and needs, and tries to keep the pairs together.

“We refer to it as if it’s their horse,” she said.

On Friday morning Abby Korent, a 4-year-old from Hudson, was spending time riding her light brown horse Sam.

Korent, who has Down syndrome, has been riding at Pine Lake Pastures since she was 18 months old, Morton said.

Korent’s parents, Kim and Chris, have seen changes in her since she started riding. Abby rides to improve her trunk stability, which in turn will help her balance, writing and other skills, Kim said.

“There’s something definitely wonderful about horses and their gentleness ... and with kids they just know,” Kim said.

Even better for Abby, she enjoys riding her horse. Before her riding time Friday, Abby was at a traditional therapy program and was content to stay there, Kim said.

“I said, ‘let’s go horseback riding,’ and she wanted to leave right away,” Kim said. “So yeah, she definitely looks forward to it.”

Therapy sessions consist of the special needs person riding in the saddle of his or her horse. While she prefers for riders to wear helmets, in some cases that’s not possible, Morton said.

Depending on the rider and horse, someone rides on the horse behind the saddle to hold up the rider, called a “ride-behind,” or two people walk alongside the rider, supporting from the sides. Another person leads the horse around the small training ring. Sessions last an hour at the most.

The therapy is based on hippotherapy, Morton said. Hippotherapy is a physical, occupational or speech and language therapy treatment strategy that utilizes equine movement, according to the American Hippotherapy Association.

Morton said her therapy horses are trained to walk one step at a time, and can go very slow. The motion of the horse’s gait is very similar to a human gait, causing the rider to make movement responses similar to human movement patterns of the pelvis while walking, according to the AHA.

Benefits are seen in riders’ speech, walking, balance and other areas. They’re also more relaxed, Morton said.

Seven of Pine Lake Pasture’s 25 horses can be used for therapy; five of those are constantly relied on.

“They’re a rarity,” Morton said.

Most of the horses at Pine Lake Pastures are a miracle themselves, rescued from starvation, neglect and death by Morton and her team. Only two of the 25 were purchased in traditional ways.

During Abby’s ride on Friday, Kim watched to see that she was sitting up straight on the horse, not leaning back on her ride-behind Hannah.

“Everything has to do with trunk stability,” Kim said.

Watching the riders’ conditions improve has been the highlight of her two years at Pine Lake Pastures, said Hafemeyer, of New Richmond.

“The difference it makes for the kids,” she said.

In the six years that Morton has been offering therapy, some experiences stand out to her and her daughters.

One rider with severe brain trauma confined to a wheelchair is someone she always remembers, Hannah said. He started walking with a cane, and improved his vocal skills.

Another rider in therapy had never spoke.

“His first word was our horse’s name,” Morton said.

Another rider was born with no inner ear, and doctors thought he’d never walk.

“And now he runs,” said Mookie.

“So many moms start crying when their kids are here,” Morton said.

Getting people to the “miracle” stage takes time, patience and persistence, especially if the rider isn’t too crazy about being on a horse, Morton said.

Demand is high at Pine Lake Pastures, and about 20 people are on a waiting list.

That’s where volunteers come in. The more volunteers they have, the more therapy sessions they can offer, Morton said. It takes two to three people to run each session.

And, like every working farm, there are day-to-day chores. Volunteers are more than welcome to help fix and paint fences, groom horses, clean pastures and stalls or assist with therapy and clinics. Those who aren’t so horse-inclined can help with fundraisers or other events, Morton said. About 20 people help at the farm on a regular basis.

“It’s a lot of work but it’s fun,” she said.

While Pine Lake Pastures has a partial nonprofit status, volunteers and donations are vital to its success. It takes about $50,000 to run the farm a year, Morton estimated.

To supplement their income, Morton gives riding lessons. Abby’s older sister — who’s “horse crazy” — just started, she said.

Along with free therapy for special needs people, Pine Lake Pastures is involved with the county 4-H project, Personal Ponies and school field trips. They’re full as far as horses go (there’s a weight limit per acre in St. Croix County) but will still help recuse horses in extreme hardship cases, Hafemeyer said.

Pine Lake Pastures will host a horse show for special needs kids on Aug. 29, Morton said. The kids will ride, and be awarded ribbons.

For more information or to volunteer, contact Morton at tcmorton@baldwin-tele