HARARE, ZIMBABWE - Once a week, a horse track in Harare invites children born with cerebral palsy, a neuromuscular disorder, to visit. But the children don’t simply watch the horses.
Trish Lillie of the Healing with Horses Therapeutic Centre says her organization is helping kids who cannot afford the recommended speech and physical therapies.
"I started two years ago,” Lillie said. “I decided to leave the job I was in. I have always loved horses and I have a passion for horses, so I wanted to take my passion and use it to help people.
“So that’s basically how we started, and the children that come to me are mostly from disadvantaged homes. … So we do this service for free, and we have seen a huge benefit for them."
The charity is supported by donations from companies and individuals with a mission to help heal children and communities.
Stanley Dzingai, 37, brings his 4-year-old child for regular sessions.
"At first my son used to refuse horse therapy, but he is changed and you can see the progress,” Dzingai said. “He couldn't stand, but now he is standing; he couldn't sit, and now he can sit. We started recently, but we can see an improvement, a huge one,” in one month’s time.
The U.N. Children’s Fund says the prevalence rate of cerebral palsy worldwide ranges from about 1 to 4 in every 1,000 live births.
Christine Peta, a former disabilities professor at the University of Cape Town who now works with UNICEF Zimbabwe, said that “when some women fall pregnant, they do not go for medical checks until the day they go into labor. So if there are problems that can be prevented or infections that can be treated that can prevent cerebral palsy, those problems remain unattended, resulting in the child being born with cerebral palsy. So it is very critical to be medically checked during pregnancy."
But that might be only an ideal in countries like Zimbabwe, where the health sector has essentially ceased to function.
In that case, Peta recommends speech, occupational and physical therapies for children born with cerebral palsy.
She said this might be difficult to obtain in situations where money is lacking. In such instances, she said, horse riding can be the cheapest kind of therapy.
“When a child has cerebral palsy, the child faces a number of problems, which include balance, their limbs can be stiff or they are unable to control movement,” Peta said. “Horse riding can stabilize or improve the balance of the body or the weakened muscles, the weak bones. So it is one of the things that I believe are organic and brilliant in addressing the issue of cerebral palsy."
Almost as important, the children, after getting acclimated, take to the therapy with glee. What child, after all, doesn't want to ride a pony?