Changing Lives with Hippotherapy

WRITTEN BY NICOLE STRACEK | Photos courtesy of Acorn Hill, EAAT

KELLY PETERSON DESCRIBES IT AS “HEALING.” Every week she looked forward to Friday afternoons—when she would pack her riding clothes and drive west to horse country. Peterson wasn’t raised with horses, nor did she own one herself. It wasn’t even an idea for her until December 27, 1988.

That is the day Peterson awoke from an eleven-day coma following a tragic car accident caused by a drunk driver. Both of her legs and lower jaw were broken. She suffered from a Traumatic Brain Injury, and during surgery, her lungs filled with fluid, which could have been fatal.

“I missed Christmas and woke up thinking how cool it would be to put a child who couldn’t walk on the back of a horse,” shared Peterson.

In that moment, Peterson discovered a new dream: to use hippotherapy, therapy with the help of a horse or pony, for children with special needs.

Hippotherapy is the use of equine movement as a form of therapy to promote functional outcomes.

What’s the difference between a pony and a horse?
The main distinction between a pony and a horse is height. A horse is usually considered to be an equine that is at least 14.2 hands (or about four feet ten inches) tall. A pony is an equine less than 14.2 hands. 

After obtaining her Master’s Degree in Special Education/Assistive Technology, she set her mind on riding. And that’s exactly what she did.

Besides horseback riding, volunteering also became a passion that she pursued. Peterson began to volunteer at the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) Premier Accredited Center, with over 850 locations in the United States.

“The desire to start Acorn Hill Equine Assisted Activities or Therapies (EAAT) grew exponentially as I watched a young rider, a boy with cerebral palsy, use hippotherapy. He began to sit tall and look around, point to things, and use his vocabulary that was once not there,” said Peterson.

The transformation that Peterson witnessed was nothing shy of a miracle. Soon after, she became a Therapeutic Riding Instructor. Obtaining her certification through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, Peterson applied for her small business license to start a nonprofit organization called Acorn Hill, EAAT.

She rented a space at a local boarding facility in Brainerd, Minnesota, and put her first rider on a horse in 2016. It was there that Peterson met Toni Wasilensky, a certified PATH Intl. instructor and trainer, with over thirty years of experience in the equine industry.

With the help of Wasilensky and the ponies, her first pilot program was a success.

“Without Wasilensky, I wouldn’t have been able to start Acorn Hill EAAT. Her knowledge, guidance, and amazing insight is a true blessing to both me and our riders,” shared Peterson.

With the success of the pilot program under her belt, they soon outgrew the space in Brainerd. With her dreams still in motion, it was time to relocate. In 2000, Peterson and her husband Ty purchased a 120-acre farm just north of Motley, Minnesota. The parcel was full of Timothy grass, which is suitable for horses. It was their dream to one day use the parcel for equine-assisted therapies.

In 2018, Acorn Hill EAAT officially moved to the to the farm that the Petersons had purchased nearly twenty years earlier.

The current services available at Acorn Hill EAAT include Hippotherapy and therapeutic riding lessons. They plan to add a third service in the spring for Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy. Hippotherapy is practiced with a licensed therapist, PATH Intl. Therapeutic Riding Instructor, a horse handler, two side walkers, an arena therapy assistant, and of course, a horse or pony.

Team members Amy Bombstad (left), Toni Wasilensky (center) and Anni Daedlow (right) walk with rider, Skylar, and Pony Ruby during a therapeutic riding lesson.

Alongside Wasilensky, Peterson has two volunteers to assist with therapies and the ponies. Willow Hines, a six-year-old girl with Down syndrome, became the first rider in the new location. Hines rides Ruby, or “Super Ruby,” as she calls her. Over the past two years, Hines has inspired everyone at Acorn Hill EAAT through her amazing spirit. Her mother, Jennifer Hines, is extremely happy with the results.

“It’s been fun to see Willow so motivated and happy,” Jennifer said. “She loves Ruby, and everyone at Acorn Hill EAAT loves Willow. With just over a year of hippotherapy, Willow’s core muscles were strengthened, and she gained confidence in her abilities. She has become unstoppable.”

Hines was encouraged to learn new words and count with the help of Ruby the horse. During hippotherapy sessions, Hines and other riders take part in a variety of activities such as blowing bubbles, counting with the help of toys, and increasing coordination through games. Each session is one hour long and teaches the riders about caring for the horses or ponies while they gain confidence in their abilities.

For Peterson, her dream of using hippotherapy to help children with disabilities remains strong.

“I am so grateful today as I look back over the last thirty years of growing and waiting and then turn forward to see what we are accomplishing today,” Peterson said. “We are serving a variety of people with special needs through a partnership with our ponies. Horses/ponies make connections with humans that can empower and heal us like no other. We are always striving to make unparalleled differences through Equine Assisted Activities or Therapies.”

Visit Acorn Hill EAAT’s website acornhilleaat.org for more information.

*The Petersons experienced another very tragic event on February 29, 2020. Their eighteen-year-old son, Paul Peterson, was in a snowmobile accident and passed away. He attended Staples-Motley High School and took classes at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. He enjoyed playing the trumpet, was an active member of the Faith Lutheran Church in Staples, and a proud son of a United States Air Force veteran. He will be sorely missed by all who knew and loved him. His parents started a GoFundMe page, to which they are accepting donations for a new pilot program. The program adds mental health services for their riders. Visit their GoFundMe page at gofundme.com/f/welovepaul if you’d like to donate.