Disabled children get a chance to do something fun that brings them close to nature when they make contact with the Mounted Angels nonprofit.
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Small children bond with small horses as horse and human become best friends.
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PLEASANT HILL, Ill. — Dalayna Lung doesn’t talk much, but when it’s time for her riding lessons to start back up again, she lets her mom know.
Dalayna often goes into work with her mother, Kristi. A picture of a horse hangs on the wall, and as the season approaches, Dalayna will focus more and more on it — first pointing to it then back to herself to make sure Kristi gets the point.
Dalayna has cerebral palsy and soon will enter her ninth year as a rider with Mounted Angels Therapeutic Horsemanship. The approaching season will mark the 30th year Mounted Angels is providing free lessons for any child older than 3 with a disability.
Dalayna’s first lesson at 3 years old went off without a hitch, but she backslid a bit after that. Her mother’s presence prompted a separation anxiety early on, and Kristi spent the bulk of her daughter’s first year hiding behind a nearby trailer, silently cheering her on. That forced independence helped Dalayna to progress, and riding quickly became her passion.
“Some kids play baseball or basketball. This is her thing,” Kristi said. “It’s the one thing she gets to do, and she loves it.”
Once a week through every June and July without fail, Dalayna and Kristi make the hour drive from Mount Sterling to Pleasant Hill for lessons. The trips are just as much for Kristi as they are for Dalayna.
“Those people are like our family,” she said. “I would never take that away from her, or from me.”
While their special needs children bond with the horses, the parents share their everyday struggles and how they get through. When a rider meets a goal, everyone shares in the victory.
The connection the rider has with the horse is real. Once a child has found a horse that works for him or her, the pair generally sticks together. Dalayna’s favorite horse, Buck, recently died. Buck’s owner telephoned the Lungs when it became apparent the animal wouldn’t make it much longer. The Lungs visited, bringing ice cream to Buck.
“We wheeled her up to him in her wheelchair,” Kristi said. “He put his mouth down on her head, almost like a kiss.”
Kristi can’t explain what happens when Dalayna or any of her riding friends are up on the mount, but she can look on as her daughter — usually rigid in her wheelchair — relaxes and settles in. She doesn’t always see the progress, but there is no denying Dalayna’s ear-to-ear smile.
“You feel every emotion, but it’s exciting,” she said. “It’s something you know is doing her good, and it’s fun. She doesn’t realize it’s therapy.”
Dalayna is 12. She has six more years of riding ahead of her before she turns 18 — riders are able to stay with Mounted Angels until they finish high school — and then the Lungs have to find a new place to ride. Kristi has no intentions of letting Dalayna give it up.
“This is the best therapy we could do,” she said. “Watching her brings tears to my eyes. I don’t know what happens, but it’s an amazing experience.”
Volunteers bring the horses for Mounted Angels to the Pike County Fairgrounds, which helps keep lessons free. The group is in constant need of volunteers. Coordinator Martha Sheppard said they have up to 30 volunteers each season but can always use more — especially younger volunteers toward whom the riders tend to gravitate. Lessons usually take place in groups of three at half- hour intervals.
The volunteer orientation session will be at 6 p.m. Thursday at the fairgrounds, and the first lesson will follow immediately
“You can see the real difference in the kids when they begin to enjoy it,” Sheppard said. “They begin to smile.”