Jessica Moore works with 3-year-old Greyson O’Conor. Moore is the founder of a nonprofit that uses equine therapy to help children with special needs. CONTRIBUTED

Sunday Conversation with Jessica Moore

Therapist says horses asset to helping patients with cognitive disabilities

Jessica Moore is a physical therapist assistant who wanted to focus her professional life on children with disabilities. She also is a horse lover. It makes perfect sense then that Moore uses equine therapy in her work with kids with a myriad of cognitive disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury. Moore is the founder and executive director of McKenna Farms, a nonprofit that serves some 500 kids a week on 17 acres in Paulding County. The nonprofit has an outpatient clinic in a converted Civil War-era farmhouse and some 15 horses. “There is an incredible bond created when a horse and a human being connect that provides a therapeutic component like no other,” Moore said.

Q: What’s your background and why did you start McKenna Farms?

A: When I was in college, I started volunteering in different programs that combined physical therapy and horses and I fell in love with that. After graduation, I lived in Montana and worked at a facility that also used horses. I also bought a horse and her name is McKenna. After I moved to Atlanta, I started using McKenna to treat patients in West Cobb and East Paulding. I never dreamed this would get so big.

Q: Why did it?

A: When I started in 2000, there were a lot of families moving to the area but not a lot of services for children with special needs. We now have 38 staff — 25 physical, occupational and speech therapists — and some 200 volunteers who clean stalls, turn the horses out and are trained to help be the lead for therapy sessions. Also, we have a lot of activities and therapy sessions outside. The kids love being around other kids, nature and horses.

Q: What is so special about therapy with a horse?

A: A horse’s movement is very similar to the human gait. For instance, if you have a child who had a stroke at birth that caused them to be paralyzed on one side, placing them in different positions on a horse elicits different movements and strengthens different parts of the body. I can take a child to the gym and do exercises all day long but when I get them on that horse, they come alive.

Q: What about the bond between the animal and the child?

A: Animals, in general, are very therapeutic. I think a horse makes children feel trusted, accepted and confident. Horses are very aware and insightful about our personalities. They know when we are nervous and sad. I have witnessed many times when a horse interacts with children who are nonverbal. It is amazing to see that interaction.

Q: Are kids ever afraid to get on such a big animal?

A: A lot of children are intimidated at first. Once a child gets on a horse and feels movement, we can’t get them off! It is especially meaningful for children who spend a lot of time in a wheelchair.

Q: Your place must also be a great refuge for parents?

A: It is so therapeutic for them, too. This is a very serene place. Parents enjoy walking down the wooded trail that leads to a beautiful creek. They also appreciate the camaraderie of meeting other families who are dealing with similar challenges.

Q: You are a nonprofit?

A: Yes and we rely heavily on donations and are always seeking new community support. The added component of offering equine programs in a therapeutic setting is costly, but we know the benefits are worthwhile. We are one of the only providers in our area that accepts Medicaid for therapy services. We accept all individuals with disabilities.

Q: Plans for the future?

A: We have a capital campaign to build an aquatic therapy center. Beyond just aquatic therapy, a pool would also allow us to offer water safety classes for children with disabilities and their families, create a Special Olympics swim team, and expand our program for veterans.

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The Sunday Conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by email at ann.hardie@ymail.com.

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