TWIN FALLS • Julie Belnap lives on her own desolate planet.
Each day is scary and confusing for the 13-year-old Hansen girl, and genuine smiles are at a premium.
Loud noises, new people, unfamiliar settings and a host of other sensory surprises can send Julie spiraling into meltdown mode. Without warning, she’ll become inconsolable: screaming, crying, thrashing.
Julie’s IQ is somewhere around 25, and in a lot of ways she functions like a 1-year-old. She knows six words and three signs. She has Tourette syndrome and can’t distinguish her family members from strangers. Much of the time, she looks frightened.
Doctors can’t be sure, but it’s more than likely Julie’s problems stem from her birth mother’s prolific drug abuse. She admitted to using massive amounts of heroin and cocaine while pregnant.
“Julie lives most of her life being uncomfortable and just getting by,” said Roberta Belnap, Julie’s adoptive mother since age 3.
For Julie, it’s a lonely existence littered with frustration and extreme mental pain, Roberta said, but there is one thing that brings the girl, if only briefly, out into the light: therapeutic horseback riding.
“It’s pretty cool,” Roberta said, her face lighting up. “We’ve found one thing — there’s one thing that we know she likes to do.”
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Roberta has five children, including two with special needs.
Julie’s older sister Katie Belnap, 17, has Down syndrome. A few years ago, Roberta began bringing Katie to Rising Stars Therapeutic Riding Center in Twin Falls. As Roberta would watch and Julie would wait, Katie would ride. The 30-minute sessions became an enormous positive in the teen’s life, perhaps the highlight.
In therapeutic riding, volunteers flank both sides of a horse, walking alongside, as a kid or adult with special needs rides saddle-less. For people with cerebral palsy and similar disorders, therapeutic riding improves posture, builds strength for sitting and standing upright, and stretches out tight legs. For those with mental or intellectual disabilities, it can build confidence.
There’s also an unexplainable X factor involved: the healing bond between humans and animals.
It was at Rising Stars that Katie met the love of her life, a sorrel and white Paint horse named Peanut.
“Katie is a horse-aholic,” Roberta said. “Actually, it’s Peanut-specific.”
Atop Peanut, Katie’s mood soared. She’s become more talkative and confident since meeting her four-legged soul mate.
“She lives every week, just waiting for that day that she gets to ride Peanut,” Roberta said. Katie talks about Peanut nonstop, and during the winter, when Rising Stars in on hiatus, she visits Peanut.
“Katie worries herself sick during the winter,” Roberta said. “Is Peanut getting enough food? Is he being taken care of? Is he warm?”
Results were apparent for Katie. But what about the sister who waited as Katie rode?
Rising Stars founder and director Marni Porath suggested Julie give therapeutic riding a try. Roberta was skeptical.
“I told Marni exactly what Julie’s situation was, and she said, ‘I’d still like to do it,’” Roberta said. “Julie’s situation is severe enough that I did not expect results for her. I thought she would scream and yell and have a meltdown, and we’d have to pull her off. And it would be a horrendous experience.”
But with nothing to lose, Roberta agreed to let Julie give it a try.
That first time, Roberta was shocked when Julie remained still atop the horse. No screaming, no tantrum. She seemed calm.
Julie began weekly sessions at Rising Stars two summers ago. She seemed relaxed on horseback. Stranger still: For about 30 minutes following the sessions, Julie was suddenly more receptive than ever to learning.
“It was like, ‘Wow,’ we have this golden hour,” Roberta said.
Julie would ride for 30 minutes then work on skills for 30 minutes. After that, the window closed again.
“When she gets on the horse, it’s like the light bulb comes on in her brain, and she can think,” Roberta said.
It was during one of these post-ride learning sessions that Julie first said the words “mama,” “daddy,” “baby” and “horse.” Before that, Julie had only ever uttered “hi” and “bye.” During that same session, Julie learned the sign for “walk.” Before that, she could sign only “potty” and “drink.” For years, Roberta had tried to teach Julie these simple signs and words to no avail.
“Suddenly she looked at me, and there was understanding in her eyes,” Roberta said. “It was miraculous to us, honestly. Everyone there was amazed and really excited because it showed you could take a child like Julie who is so extremely severely affected, and therapeutic riding would make a difference.”
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Porath founded Rising Stars Therapeutic Riding Center four years ago. Her daughter, Hallie Jo, 6, has cerebral palsy and is blind. Starting when Hallie Jo was 2, Porath began taking her daughter every other week to Hailey’s Sagebrush Equine Training Center for the Handicapped for therapeutic riding sessions.
“We felt like it was so good for her,” Porath said. “That’s when we decided we wanted to see people in the Twin Falls area have that opportunity.”
Rising Stars, at 3613 N. 3100 E. in Twin Falls, was born.
Last summer, the nonprofit served about 65 special-needs individuals, mostly children along with a handful of adults. When the program starts back up this summer, Porath expects about 75 participants.
Rising Stars offers both therapeutic riding and hippotherapy. They have similar effects but slightly different goals. In hippotherapy, licensed physical and occupational therapists run the sessions, which are an extension of therapy taking place in a clinic. Licensed therapists aren’t required to be on hand in therapeutic riding, and it’s not necessarily an extension of therapy goals set by a medical professional.
Both methods look about the same. Riders perform exercises while on horseback, reaching out their arms, matching colored rings, standing on the horse, shooting baskets as the horse walks by a hoop. They work on fine motor skills and following instructions. They become aware of where various parts of their body are, and improve their balance.
“It isn’t that we’re trying to teach them how to ride a horse,” said Jan Yingst, a physical therapist with Primary Therapy Source who works with Rising Stars. “I truly am trying to work different muscle groups so when they get on land, they can function better.”
Ivan Hardcastle, also of Primary Therapy Source, is an occupational therapist who works with Rising Stars.
“The unique thing is having it be a living, breathing animal, and that makes a huge difference,” Hardcastle said, noting the horse’s movement stimulates muscles. “There are benefits there that you cannot replicate through any mechanical device.”
One benefit is kids don’t realize they’re in therapy, said Jennie Ridley of Jerome, whose daughter, Bryanna, 5, is a Rising Stars rider. Bryanna was born three months early and has cerebral palsy.
“She goes to therapy several times a week, and it becomes a mundane thing,” Ridley said. “I don’t think she thinks about (riding) as therapy. It’s, ‘Oh I get to go ride the horse.’ It doesn’t seem like work.”
As for confidence-building, Hardcastle said kids accomplish things on horseback they didn’t think they could do, like remaining standing as the horse they’re riding takes an entire lap around the barn.
“(You tell kids), ‘You’ve done something unique, something I’ve never done,’” Hardcastle said. “Their faces light up.”
He added: “The results bleed over into everyday life.”
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Roberta pays just $5 apiece for her daughters’ sessions. Rising Stars stays afloat thanks to local contributors like the United Way of South Central Idaho, Twin Falls Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club of Twin Falls, First Federal Foundation and Twin Falls Optimist Club. Forty-five volunteers chip in about 120 hours each week. They set up obstacles and walk with riders.
Rising Stars couldn’t exist without the support.
Someday Porath would like to expand into winter, but it’s not in her immediate plans. Currently, the season runs from June to October.
“Some of our riders would be much better off if we could continue through the winter,” Porath said. “Others are ready for the break.”
Roberta would love to see the program offered year-round.
“It’s one of those things that has really been a huge blessing in our lives for both kids,” she said. “You feel sick when the summer ends.”
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In late March, sisters Katie and Julie had their first Rising Stars session in months, a demonstration for the Times-News. As usual, Katie could hardly wait during the days leading up. She got out her cowboy boots and talked nonstop about being reunited with Peanut.
Roberta didn’t know how Julie would react to the horses after the long winter. Would she remember?
Julie did. After a problem-free session, Julie was all smiles as she was lowered down from the horse.
Watching the scene from behind a barn gate, Roberta said her daughter has two smiles: a big, deceptive one that means she’s about to go berserk, and a smaller one: her real, genuine, happy smile. So rare. So precious.
This was the real one.