STAPLES, Minn. — With stairs to climb, the alphabet and colors to learn, bubbles to blow and a friendship with a pony to grow, Willow Hines showed her strength during hippotherapy training.
Her work with the pony inspired a book that could help others learn the powers of training with equine for physical, mental and emotional strengthening.
Her personal stories were recorded by her mom, Jennifer Hines, a Staples author and mother of three in “Ruby to the Rescue,” which highlights Willow’s journey with Down syndrome and training with Ruby the pony at Acorn Hill Equine Assisted Activities or Therapies in Motley. Jennifer hopes the book will bring awareness and education on hippotherapy as well as inclusion.
After years of Willow being in physical, speech and occupational therapies, Jennifer met Acorn Hill founder and executive director Kelly Peterson at a Staples Railroad Days event and decided to visit the farm for a trial. The trial came with some skepticism since Willow is afraid of cats and dogs sometimes. However, the power of a pony was quickly seen.
“Within that hour of meeting Ruby she went from me having to hold her to her actually reaching out her hand and touching Ruby and petting Ruby without even being told to do anything. I mean she did it on her own,” Jennifer said. “She would push herself in ways I never saw her push herself in a typical setting.”
One of the ways Jennifer saw Willow challenge herself was by climbing three large steps with Ruby in a stall next to the mailbox. Willow would go up the steps to take a ball out of the mailbox and then walk down the stairs to place it in the correctly colored bucket over and over again. While the task might seem simple, Willow has low muscle tone, which means these steps were a lot of work at the time, according to Jennifer.
“She would be so tired by the end of that session but she kept doing it. I mean it was a lot of work for her physically but you wouldn’t know it because she was motivated by Ruby,” Jennifer said.
Willow also mentioned playing with and running away from the cats at the farm and answered her mom’s questions about being scared of Ruby at first before eventually riding Ruby. Willow began hippotherapy in fall 2018 and participated in games with Peterson and other instructors for the first year. The games taught her songs too, including the ABCs, which she sang during the interview.
“Everybody comes away from the barn happy. It doesn’t matter how you felt, what mood you were in when you got here, everybody leaves happy and at peace with a very full heart,” Peterson said.
The effects of hippotherapy are what Jennifer and Peterson said are the healing abilities and magic of horses. Peterson also describes the horses as “an earthbound unicorn with an invisible horn.” Hippotherapy is using the horse’s movement to assist riders with physical therapy, occupational therapy or speech language needs, according to Peterson.
At Acorn Hill, hippotherapy began with Peterson’s vision to have children, who could not walk, ride a horse after she herself was severely injured in a car accident during her freshman year of college. The hippotherapy program and therapeutic riding are certified with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International and are offered for children, teens and adults. Peterson also hopes to add equine facilitated psychotherapy in the spring to help meet mental health needs.
With a future indoor arena in mind, Peterson learned about the idea of publishing a book as a fundraiser at a PATH International conference and asked Jennifer to consider the idea since she is a writer. Jennifer’s decision took only a matter of hours, in which she went home and wrote the book.
“I always thought it would be fun to write a children’s book but I never knew what I would write about so I kind of left it up to God, if I’m ever going to write a children’s book I’ll need an inspiration,” Jennifer said.
The inspiration came and Jennifer and Peterson teamed up with illustrator David Garner who donates his work and time to non-profits. Each book purchased will help fund an indoor arena at Acorn Hill, with a base cost of $50,000 to $70,000, according to Peterson.
“We’ll be able to help a lot more people in inclement weather — aka winter in Minnesota — with a heated, covered indoor arena,” Peterson said.
Fundraising quickly became a secondary reason for publishing the book, with education on hippotherapy and diversity now the primary goals, according to Peterson and Jennifer. “The goal is met in the message that we’re sending out,” as Peterson said.
“(The book) features Willow, which is a character that has Down syndrome, and so for me that’s a personal thing. … Anytime I can promote inclusion, acceptance, just a different way of looking at the world … I hope to have a positive impact with this book,” Jennifer said.