In 2007, when Meredith Hodges decided to film a television documentary about therapeutic riding, she headed to Loveland, Colorado-based therapeutic riding center, Hearts and Horses. There, she met five-year-old Sarah Foley and her mother, Diane. Sarah was born with generalized body weakness, making it difficult for her to perform tasks that required any sort of physical stamina or strength. Luckily, Diane is a physical therapist, and began looking for creative ways to help strengthen her daughter’s body. A pony ride at a friend’s birthday party immediately captured Sarah’s attention, and she began hippotherapy when she was two years old. By the time we interviewed her, Sarah had moved from hippotherapy, where the horse was being used as a modality to assist with her low tone, to therapeutic riding, where she was developing riding skills, controlling the horse independently of her volunteers.
Today, Sarah is twelve years old. We caught up with her and Diane to talk about how their lives have changed since that original interview. Even now, Diane notes that riding plays an important part in Sarah’s life. “She is still riding once a week,” said Diane. “She’s kept it up pretty much the entire time.” After a period of vast improvement, in which she was showing no signs of disability or physical deficits, Sarah ended up developing arthritis. Diane termed it “A little bump in the road, so she got more active in horseback riding, and has now overcome that also.”
When we speak on the phone, Sarah sounds like any bright, happy and enthusiastic preteen. “I’m feeling really good,” she says. “I love horseback riding, and I swim a lot, and I like playing with my dog.” She dreams of becoming either a teacher or an actress on Broadway some day. Sarah still does her riding at Hearts and Horses, and is now paired with a speckled gray horse named Boomer, that she describes as a very big challenge—but one that’s very close to her heart. “If Boomer went up for sale at Hearts and Horses, ever, I would buy him just like that,” she says. In general, Sarah describes horseback riding as an empowering experience: “I feel like we have a connection kind of. I can do anything when I’m on a horse. “
Sarah eventually moved from needing the assistance of two sidewalkers and a leader to only a leader. With the increased strength and confidence, Sarah’s instructor began to incorporate preliminary vaulting moves to strengthen her core and sense of independence. She was thankful for the assistance of the side walkers though, as it showed her she was capable of amazing things even in her first days of riding. “It made me feel more confident in myself, that I could ride on my own,” she recalled. “As [I used] the side walkers less and less and less, I started to get more confident … and finally I’m to the point where I am right now.” Equine therapy is more than just physical rehabilitation, as it also focuses on training people to be better riders and gain confidence, regardless of their starting capabilities. “I’m a really good rider now because of horse therapy and what they did for me,” says Sarah, also pointing to the inspiration of her parents: “My parents had a big part in it, making me not quit horseback riding and keep going with it—not that I would want to quit, but they would not have let me quit, that’s for sure.”
At the age of twelve, Sarah has accomplished a great deal in her life already, but describes it with an air of humility, simply saying, “It’s been a long road.” As advice for other people in her position, she stresses the benefits of positive thinking and optimism. “I think that anything can be overcome,” she says. “Maybe not always physically, but overcome mentally,” adding that physical transformations are sometimes possible too, like her success with arthritis. “I think people can do anything if they really, really want to,“ she says, and it’s clear that Sarah’s unflinching belief in that statement, along with her equine therapy, will help her accomplish anything she truly desires.
Visit Hearts and Horses’ website to find out more about their commitment to therapeutic riding, and watch Sarah’s full episode of Those Magnificent Mules, “Walk On: Part 2,” available to rent on demand.