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Horse course: Horse therapy pilot program to be offered at South Macon Elementary

fr horsesWhen summer school starts up at South Macon Elementary this year, a pair of horses will be standing in a round pen outside, waiting for their first playmates. The equines will be helping Macon TRACS, a nonprofit dedicated to providing horse therapy to people with special needs, try out a pilot program bringing horses to the schools.

If it goes well, they could be back for the school year.  

“We noticed that some students that would benefit from riding with Macon TRACS just weren’t able to get to the lessons,” said Jan McGee, executive director. “For whatever reasons the parents, the guardians, the caregivers weren’t able to take them to us.”

So, Macon TRACS came up with a solution: bring the horses to the kids. They proposed a pilot program to the school board, and the board jumped on the chance. 

“It’s a tremendous resource for our students, and we’re very fortunate to have folks in our community that are willing to work for things like that,” said Chris Baldwin, superintendent of Macon County Schools. 

To start out, Macon TRACS will offer half-hour therapy sessions to children with special needs at South Macon’s summer school program. The round pen, set up in a secluded space on school property, will be close enough that students can walk out in pairs during the school day. If it works out, the program would become a permanent part of the school and could possibly expand to other Macon County schools in the future. 

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But a lot of that depends on funding. Macon TRACS isn’t getting any extra money from the schools or county to expand their services. They’re raising it all themselves.

“If it is determined we’re going to make this a permanent program, we’re going to have to get our fundraising team geared up,” McGee said. 

Last year, 83 percent of Macon TRACS’ students took lessons on scholarship, meaning that the organization paid their expenses through fundraising. The other 17 percent paid $25 for each half-hour lesson, but those lessons have a hard cost of  $40 per half hour, so even paid-for lessons require fundraising. 

To make ends meet, Macon TRACS operates on a shoestring budget, using “volunteer” horses and an awful lot of volunteer humans. McGee gets a stipend for her role but works out of her home — Macon TRACS doesn’t have an office — and has the organization’s phone calls forwarded to her home phone. There’s not a lot of fluff to be found, but the organization’s mission is something McGee and her team believe in now just as much as they did in 2008, when Macon TRACS was founded. 

“I knew what my horse did for me, how they really enhanced the quality of my life, and once we started giving lessons it was a true eye-opener,” McGee said. 

For one thing, the horses help the kids physically, passively engaging the core muscles as the horse walks around the ring. McGee can see the difference from one end of the season to the other, especially in children who suffer from physically debilitating conditions such as cerebral palsy. 

“Those core muscles get stronger and stronger, and the students’ not doing anything,” McGee said. “They’re just sitting on a horse, maybe playing games or doing arm exercises. We see the speech become better because the core muscles affect the diaphragm, and the diaphragm is part of how we speak. It’s just amazing to watch.”

But not all students need the horses for physical reasons. Some need them to address emotional issues, such as a little boy McGee remembers who had reactive attachment disorder. The disorder keeps children from bonding with parents or caregivers. 

“He would never smile, he would never show any emotion at all, and at the end of the season he’s getting off the horse and kissing their cheek,” McGee recalled. 

It’s stories like that that have kept McGee moving forward with Macon TRACS. 

“This is amazing stuff,” she said. “When you see it and you do it, you understand what a true blessing these horses are to these individuals, and so you do it for the student.” 

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