Wrangler of Hope

Meggan Hill-McQueeney’s love affair with horses began at the age of 3, when her parents bought her a pair of Shetland ponies. By middle school she was competing in horse shows. After high school, she managed a racing stable in her native New Mexico, and for two summers during college was a wrangler at a Wyoming ranch.

But it wasn’t until 1995, while teaching riding at a ranch in Colorado, that the psychology major and 1994 graduate found her true calling – using horses to help children with disabilities.

“I met a gal who was a physical therapist; she had a client and wanted to work with him while he was riding on back of a horse,” says Hill-McQueeney. “He had Down syndrome and was deaf. The very first time he rode, he started signing, and the third time, he walked. I was totally fascinated by it.”

The physical therapist explained the concept of therapeutic riding to the amazed Hill-McQueeney, who immediately began researching the physical and emotional benefits the activity can have for children. At the same time, she looked into forming a nonprofit organization for children.

Less than a year later, Hill-McQueeney co-founded Cowboy Dreams, a nonprofit therapeutic riding program for children with physical and mental challenges.

“While there are other areas of their lives these children cannot control, when they learn to control the animals it’s very empowering,”

Hill-McQueeney says. “They gain a great deal of self-esteem because they are able to ride a 1,000-pound animal.”

Therapeutic riding centers, which were first developed in the 1960s, use the rhythm of riding to stimulate the pelvis and trunk in disabled children, helping improve balance, posture and strength. The horse’s rhythmic gait also helps improve breathing, swallowing and sound production, which promotes speech function. At the same time, the children bond with the animal and build self-confidence.

Cowboy Dreams started with one child and grew to 38 children by 1999, when Hill-McQueeney moved to Illinois to manage Kickapoo Farms, a 28-acre quarter horse breeding ranch in the rolling countryside. She and ranch owner Susan Graunke re-started the program, which serves children ages 3 to 18 with disabilities such as blindness, autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and multiple sclerosis.

“The kids don’t look at it as normal therapy treatment,” says Hill-McQueeney, who handles acquisitions, sales, breeding and grooming for the ranch while coordinating the therapy programs for Cowboy Dreams and training the volunteers, staff and horses. “They are in a non-clinical environment out here in the farm with all the new sights and smells. It’s not like sitting in a classroom and looking at a chalkboard.”

Hill-McQueeney is certified by the North America Riding for the Handicapped Association. Her staff includes a speech pathologist and physical and occupational therapists, while volunteers assist with therapy sessions, grooming the horses and fund raising. The program, which relies primarily on donations and grants, served more than 240 children last year, and has a waiting list of hundreds more.

Doctors, therapists and schools refer children to the program, where staff confer with parents to set goals. Each child in the program receives a scholarship from Cowboy Dreams, which makes it affordable for families already burdened with large medical bills.

The children have riding sessions once a week for eight weeks, or until they have mastered their goal, whether it’s walking 100 yards or riding a bicycle. The eight horses in the program are used as rewards and motivators for improved reading and math skills.

“It’s amazing to see what it does,” says Hill-McQueeney, who is a mentor for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and is on the membership committee of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. “You actually see their milestones and steps. They really make a connection with the animals.”

Hill-McQueeney is particularly proud of a 12-year-old girl who is deaf and has Down syndrome. When the girl first came to the program, her posture sagged and she often couldn’t raise her head. Over time, riding helped her look up and strengthened the muscles in her trunk to the point where she no longer slumps.

Hill-McQueeney expanded Cowboy Dreams last year with a summer camp for children who are amputees, a subject close to her heart. She is a congenital amputee and has worn a prosthesis below her right elbow since she was 6 months old.

“Horseback riding gave me an outlet and gave me something to be successful at,” says Hill-McQueeney. “I didn’t make that connection until four or five years ago when someone said to me at a fund raiser, ‘It’s great what you all are doing out here helping kids. Look how much it’s helped you.’ ”

Cecilia Chan