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MAKING A MARK: Virginia Beach nonprofit offers horseback riding therapy to people with special needs

Friends and family of people with special needs say extraordinary things are happening through horseback riding therapy at Untamed Spirit in Virginia Beach.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Six-year-old Mackenna Pence loves to ride her favorite horse, Rocky. 

"She rides him forward... and backwards," Mackenna's mother, Ruth, said, noting that riding backwards is Mackenna's favorite horseback activity.

Ruth said Mackenna has a rare genetic disorder called Prader-Willi Syndrome.

"The key things are low muscle tone... and she also has anxiety related to feeling like she's starving all the time," Ruth said. "It affects her cognitive abilities. Mackenna has seizures." 

But Ruth said that changes when Mackenna rides Rocky. 

"She can do things on Rocky that she can't do every day in other settings," Ruth said. "I think it gives her confidence. It makes her feel calm."

Mackenna's horseback riding sessions are part of the Untamed Spirit Therapeutic and Educational Program in Virginia Beach. 

"We offer adaptive riding for children and adults with special needs, and we also offer mental health counseling services," Barbara Ford, who founded the nonprofit in 2010, said.

"We offer the self-confidence piece. We offer the physical therapy piece... because if you're on a horse, that motion is like if you were walking," Ford said. "It's just amazing what it integrates into their body."

Untamed Spirit holds sessions with a handful of trained horses on a sprawling, peaceful 24 acres.

"This allows people just to take a breath. And to pause," Ford said. "The minute you start coming down the driveway, you can start to feel safe."

And while the horseback sessions are therapeutic, they're also a chance for kids like Mackenna to just be kids. 

"She enjoys telling people about it," Ruth said. "She is excited when we're coming to Rocky."

Right now, Untamed Spirit holds horseback therapy sessions three times a week. 

The nonprofit needs more instructors, volunteers, sponsors and donors. Visit the Untamed Spirit website for more information. You can also reach Barbara Ford directly at 757-288-5999 or email barb@untamedspirit.org.

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