Pat’s Pals Therapy Ranch Assists Those with Disabilities
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing Photography Provided by Amy Payne and Pat’s Pals
In 2013, Mike and Cheri Freeman, now owners of Pat’s Pals Therapy Ranch, received a phone call that would forever change the trajectory of their lives. Their 23-year-old son Patrick had been struck by a car and sustained a traumatic brain injury that left him requiring round-the-clock care. Since the accident occurred in California, the Freemans spent several years out west working with various rehabilitation centers, and found that their son responded positively to hippotherapy, which involves the movement of a horse as a therapeutic treatment to improve coordination, balance and strength.
“Besides helping him physically, the mental and emotional benefits of being outside and around horses was evident,” Cheri says.
After several years, the family moved back home to Indiana. They wanted to continue hippotherapy as a treatment but couldn’t find anywhere nearby that offered what Patrick had been getting. In November of 2019, they came across a piece of property in Plainfield and Mike got the idea to build their own nonprofit therapy clinic that Patrick and others in the community could use. The Freemans weren’t looking to make a profit – they simply had a passion to help the disabled. Plus, the pair knew all too well what it’s like to be thrown into the world of disability without a moment’s notice.
“You become isolated from everyone else because it’s a unique situation,” Cheri says. “We wanted to create a place where the family can just enjoy being together.”
In the summer of 2020, they opened Pat’s Pals Therapy Ranch, formed a board of directors and became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Board Member Lesley Lautenschlager also serves on the board of the American Hippotherapy Association (AHA) and has been a national trainer for decades.
“She’s the one who helped us get started with finding therapy horses and getting them trained,” Cheri says.
One of the buildings on the property is a therapy clinic, and sessions are conducted by skilled physical, occupational and speech therapists. Each one-hour session incorporates hippotherapy in some way, though the time spent on the horse may vary depending on the patient. Therapists also incorporate various tools and instruments into therapy such as exercise bikes and parallel bars. Pat’s Pals recently added an adult bionic exoskeleton that is used especially for brain and spinal cord injuries, and stroke recovery.
“That’s something we look forward to incorporating into therapy sessions, because to combine hippotherapy with bionic exoskeleton training can be a huge benefit,” Mike says. “In fact, there are only three in Indiana for outpatient use.”
Hippotherapy dials into the mechanics of the body. The movement of a horse’s pelvis is similar to the human pelvis, so it replicates what it’s like for a human to walk. That can help patients with their balance and sensory organization.
“You cannot design a machine to replicate the movement of a horse, so therapists carefully choose the horse to use with their patient, as some horses create more forward and backward movement while others create more side-to-side movement,” Mike says. “I’ve seen a patient start facing forward, then change to facing sideways, then backwards, and then get up on hands and knees on the back of the horse.”
Each way of positioning the patient creates different reactions between the horse and the patient. Some patients need to strengthen their limbs while others need to strengthen their core. Throughout the entire process, an emotional bond is created between the horse and the patient.
“There’s something about that connection that’s fascinating to watch,” Cheri says. “It’s great to hear how excited parents are when they witness what their child can do after just a few weeks with a horse.”
Sometimes a child won’t respond to regular therapy but will respond when a horse is involved.
“One little boy literally jumps out of the car when he arrives and runs into his therapy session,” Cheri says. “An autistic boy who volunteers with us went from being afraid of any animal larger than a guinea pig to now riding a horse. The first time it happened I asked him how he felt, and he said, ‘Severely happy!’”
Pat’s Pals also works with a 2-year-old whose parents are thrilled with the response they have seen in just a couple of months.
“Since starting at Pat’s Pals, my daughter’s core is exponentially stronger, she sits up straighter, she finally holds onto handles, and she’s babbling, saying words she had not previously,” the 2-year-old’s mother says.
Every therapy session takes money. Besides paying therapists, there is the cost of feeding and caring for the horses. Plus, each session must include a therapist, a horse handler, a walker and a volunteer to fetch necessary items.
“We want someone on either side of the patient when they are on the horse to ensure safety,” Cheri says. “This is crucial since our patients are fragile.”
The Pat’s Pals team relies heavily on volunteers who do everything from side walking to mucking stalls, grooming, cleaning hooves, painting fences, training, and exercising the horses. Though all volunteers must be at least 15 years old, they need not have prior horse experience.
Currently, Pat’s Pals employs five part-time therapists and three horses. Those numbers may change in the future depending on patient load. Though the Freemans are eager to provide this service to those in the community who will benefit, they want it to grow organically at a pace that’s comfortable and safe.
“It seems to be a word-of-mouth kind of thing,” Cheri says. “When someone’s child benefits, they tell someone else.”
Pat’s Pals offers a Financial Assistance Fund, to which people can contribute. Every dollar in the fund goes specifically to help families who can’t afford a session on their own.
Strides to Success, also located in Plainfield, uses human-animal interaction to help kids and adults overcome trauma and learn valuable life skills. The two nonprofits nicely complement each other.
“Theirs is an equine learning and equine behavioral therapy, while ours is hippotherapy, which is physical, occupational and speech therapy using the purposeful manipulation of equine movement as a tool in that,” Mike says. “They are two different things that are both important.”
The ranch includes a barn and farm animals to create a serene atmosphere for patients and their families. Though it’s a clinic, the Freemans didn’t want it to feel like one.
“We know what that feels like to go into a sterile hospital environment,” Cheri says. “We wanted this to be a relaxed place where people can walk around the pond, feed the ducks or pet the cats.”
This spring they plan to build a sensory garden full of various colors and textures for patients and their families to enjoy.
“It’ll be a place that will be both relaxing and stimulating,” says Cheri, noting that Duke Energy has committed to donating to the garden, and has also donated a heater so that Pat’s Pals can offer therapy sessions in the wintertime.
The Freemans are happy to do something that makes a difference in other people’s lives.
“We didn’t start out in the world of disability, and it takes quite a toll,” says Cheri, adding that she doesn’t have the energy to put into the ranch what Mike and the volunteers do, because caring for Patrick taps her out emotionally. Together they heal when they go out to the farm, even if Patrick doesn’t get on a horse.
“He loves seeing the animals,” Cheri says. “That’s what we want, for this to be a healing place.”
Pat’s Pals Therapy Ranch is located at 5422 East County Road 600 South in Plainfield. For more information and to learn about how to become a volunteer, call 317-836-5484, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit patspals.org.