Reaching milestones

7/6/2013

Miles of Smiles helps Lakin girl's recovery.

Miles of Smiles helps Lakin girl's recovery.

Editor's note: This is the second story in a two-part series about Cora Welch, an 11-year-old Lakin girl who had a rare attack due to Hashimoto's encephalopathy. Today's story is about how a local therapeutic horseback riding agency helped Cora overcome the physical and mental side effects of the disease and treatment.

BY RACHAEL GRAY

Special to The Telegram

Denna Welch-Haney didn't know she missed her daughter Cora's laughter so much until she started laughing again.

A year-long struggle with Hashimoto's encephalopathy had left Cora with physical and mental struggles. The disease is most common in women who are older, and most often attacks the thyroid. In Cora's case, it attacked her brain.

Side effects of the disease include personality changes and mood swings. Steroids taken to combat the disease caused Cora to gain weight.

But through the support system of her family, friends, doctors, teachers and activity instructors, the 11-year-old Lakin girl is getting back to normal.

Some of her therapy over the past year has come from the comfort of animals — her rabbits, cats and dogs at her house, as well as her goat and hog 4-H projects.

But one special bond sticks out for Cora.

His name is Money. He's a 15-hand retired sorrel show horse who has physical struggles of his own.

"He makes me feel ornery because he's ornery," Cora said.

Cora takes weekly hour-long lessons at Miles of Smiles, a therapeutic horseback riding program for people with disabilities.

Welch-Haney had heard a parent explaining the benefits of riding therapy and she decided to enroll Cora.

It's actually at lessons when Welch-Haney and her husband, Scott Haney get to hear Cora's laughter the most.

A recent cell phone movie Haney captured features Cora trotting on Money — her dark hair and helmet bouncing to the rhythm of Money's calm gait. Cora's laughter fills in the indoor arena.

During a fall 2012 lesson, Cora got to draw on Money with chalk. She wrote "Money loves Cora" and drew dollar signs on him.

At lessons, it's not just Money Cora loves.

"Everyone was nice to me. Not one person was mean. It's just sometimes at school I don't feel like I fit in. Sometimes people will be mean and make rude remarks to me. I try to ignore them, but sometimes it's hard to," she said.

Cora said she doesn't feel different at lessons.

Welch-Haney said the benefits of the riding lessons have been numerous.

"Just being around animals is the greatest thing for her. The confidence in herself — she was doing something new that she hadn't done before," she said.

Welch-Haney said Miles of Smiles also helped her cognitive issues.

"Being able to listen to an instructor tell her, 'this is what you need your horse to do,' and for her to be able to take that information and then relay it to the horse — that took a lot of work for her in getting those thoughts organized," she said.

Welch-Haney also said the stretching done at the beginning of class helped Cora with her flexibility.

"Her muscles were really tight and weak after being in the hospital so long," she said.

But most of all, it's helped her self-esteem.

"It has helped her confidence in herself ... She was a little nervous and scared of the horses to begin with, and then conquering that and being able to do that is a huge self-esteem booster," she said.

Jennifer Standley is Cora's instructor at Miles of Smiles.

"(She's) sincere. Sincerely excited about everything about life. And I just see her at lessons and I know that she always looks forward to being there. So she's always happy and polite and wants to help the other kids in the class, even though she may be learning something new — that's the neatest part of her."

Standley also has said Cora is more confident.

"I think the biggest thing was confidence in her, because she was real nervous about getting on the horse and (trying) new things. She was always eager to get on the horse, but to have the confidence to ride by herself and do that, that is really the biggest achievement she's made," she said.

Standley also said riding has physical benefits for Cora.

"What I've noticed, and whether it's with the riding or being off medication, too, is her posture has improved and her flexibility has improved," she said.

Standley has noticed that Cora has better endurance and can stay on the horse longer, or for the full lesson.

But most of all, she's noticed the bond forged between horse and rider.

"She's in love with Money. She would take Money home if she could. And it's fun to watch the horse reciprocate that feeling," she said.

Haney said being around horses has helped calm Cora.

"I think being around the horses — She just loves animals. I think it calms her down ... At times she has had emotional outbursts, but it seems like when she is around horses it calms her down. The happiness is just overwhelming to her," he said.

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