The magic of the horse

Rocío Gonzalo Fernández rides on Rociero at La Corbera asisted by her physical therapist Elena Megías. PHOTO: KARINA PEPE

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ROCÍO GONZALO FERNÁNDEZ goes to sleep and wakes up every night with her legs crossed. Rocío was born with spina bifida and has never been able to walk or move her legs. One night, three years ago, she had a dream that she was riding her horse Rociero, galloping through the fields. When she woke up, her legs were no longer crossed.

SPINA BIFIDA, literally “split spine” in Latin, is the second-most frequent congenital malformation after heart disease. It is caused by a malformation of the spinal cord that is produced by a neural tube defect, and it has forced Rocío, now 21, into a wheelchair.

LA CORBERA WAS INITIALLY CONSTRUCTED IN 1987 as an equestrian center and residence by Rocío’s father, Alfonso Gonzalo. When Rocío was born with spina bifida, her mother Yuya began to search for appropriate therapies, but when her daughter turned five she realized her best therapy was at home. This is how the equine therapy center was born.

YUYA performed the required training for horseassisted interventions, in accordance with the regulations established by the Spanish Federation of Equestrian Therapy (FETE). After completing FETE’s three training cycles as well as an aptitude course, Yuya obtained her license and began the therapeutic riding program at La Corbera.

ALTHOUGH AT FIRST YUYA formed the program only to help her daughter, today La Corbera has 40 students that come from the Special Education Center Patronato de San Pelayo once a week, and another nine who come independently.

ROCÍO’S FIRST EXPERIENCE riding a horse changed her life entirely. She remembers that her physical therapist whispered for her to close her eyes, and then the horse began to walk.

“I FELT IT IN MY ENTIRE BODY that I was walking,” Rocío says, smiling.

AFTER THE FIRST THREE STEPS, she began to cry tears of joy and astonishment at what she was feeling. She continued to cry until the end of the session. She could not believe that an animal could make her feel as though she were walking for the first time. These were her first steps towards freedom with horses.

SIX MONTHS AFTER she began to horseback ride, Rocío suffered a fall. She found herself in the middle of a field, alone with the physical therapist and without the help of her wheelchair. Her physical therapist told her that there were only two options, stay in the field or get back on the horse. After a lot of effort and force, she remounted.

“THANKS TO THIS,” explains Rocío, “I am still riding today.”

WHEN SHE WAS A CHILD, her confinement to a wheelchair had a serious impact on her selfesteem, but this has changed thanks to her ability to horseback riding Now, she can walk like everyone else when she is mounted, and her insecurities have disappeared. When she is on a horse, she feels free.

TODAY, Rocío is only able to ride once every five days. Eight years ago she had an operation on her spine and doctors told her she would have to stop riding as often as she did. Her love for horses could not be limited, however, and Rocío compromised with her doctor that she would keep riding, just not every day.

“THEY CANNOT TELL ME that I cannot ride,” she affirms.

ROCÍO DOES THE SAME TYPES OF THERAPY as the rest of the students at the center. Despite the difficulties that her wheelchair presents, she always manages to brush her horse. Afterwards, with the help of her mother and physical therapist Elena Megías, she gets on Rociero.

THE TEAM, comprised of Elena and two other helpers who aid in controlling Rociero and helping Rocío, walks through the fields. Elena works with Rocío, performing exercises such as Pilates, connection with her mount and control of her back.

“WHEN YOU FEEL COMFORTABLE, hands in a cross,” Elena says to Rocío. Elena knows Rocío’s conditions and needs very well. She has incredible patience with her, as with the rest of the students. With Rocío, it is most important to focus on controlling her spine through arm movements and different games with balls.

WHEN THE SESSION IS OVER, Rocío dismounts Rociero, sits in her wheelchair and guides Rociero to the barn, where she gives him a treat.

ALFONSO, ROCÍO’S FATHER, bought Rociero because of his docile character and strong stature. Today, he is the only horse that Rocío rides. She remembers one day when she did not want to speak to anyone and instead went to visit her horse, who appeared to be waiting for her. These small moments with Rociero are the most powerful for Rocío. “You have to live it to understand what I am talking about,” she explains.

ROCÍO WANTS everyone to be able to live this experience and hopes that La Corbera can welcome as many students as possible. Along with the six therapy horses, Elena and psychologist Selene Gómez work separately with each student, concentrating on physical and psychological aspects respectively. There are some students with whom both of the professionals work together to help as much as possible. Lola, a four-year-old girl, is one of these students. She has cerebral palsy and, although her mother takes her to different therapy centers every day, equine therapy has been a large part of her progress.

ELENA GETS ON THE HORSE with Lola, and the two practice movements and balance exercises. In addition to physical work, Lola’s session also incorporates speech exercises that Selene suggests to Elena, which help Lola with her difficulty speaking. When she began equine therapy two years ago she was not able to speak or walk. Now, she can walk with help and can communicate much better than before.

STORIES LIKE LOLA’S AND ROCÍO’S are common at La Corbera. After 16 years, the center continues to advance. Yuya explains that equine therapies are not very advanced in Spain, but with help from centers like La Corbera access is becoming much more common. The creation of FETE in 2004 was a big step in the development of equine therapy and important for centers like La Corbera, which has been a part of the federation since 2006.

“ALL OF THIS BEGAN with the idea of helping,” explains Yuya. La Corbera continues to grow and help everyone it can.