MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Midwest Therapeutic Riding has been providing occupational therapy for kids with special needs for years. Therapists focus on things such as balance, motor skills and confidence, but the pandemic inspired them to take on a very special project.
“Go ahead, start walking, and then ask him to trot,” a therapist tells Johanna Gaumond as she leads a horse around a ring.
Gaumond is a natural with horses.
“Keep going, keep going straight. Keep going,” she’s cheered on as she leads the horse in a trot.
It makes sense she’d be comfortable with the animals, because she’s been coming to Midwest Therapeutic Riding since the age of three.
“Oh, it's a second home to her,” said her mom, Kai Gaumond. “Like, she just walks in like she owns the place.”
That sense of belonging is what the staff and volunteers are working for. Students can be seen riding with arms stretched wide, or on top of their heads to work on balance and strength.
“He's in the lead and he's coming around the last turn."
“I like to use two hands and watch how much hair I can get off,” program director Stephanie Kubarth said, showing one little girl, Brooke, how to brush the horse.
Kubarth said the kids bond with the horses by caring for them in the barn—an act that releases oxytocin.
“Which is that bonding hormone that moms have with their babies,” Kubarth said. “So, they find they're bonding with their horse and the research shows it carries over and they're bonding more with their caretakers.”
The program in Union Grove provides therapy for kids with a variety of needs.
“There's so many physical benefits that they get, helping with walking,” Kubarth said. “We've seen kids walk for the first time and a lot of talking for the first time.”
Kubarth is used to firsts, but recently, the kids came up with something even she hadn’t seen before.
“Chipper, the groom, had been nickering a lot to Snickers here, the bride,” she said, motioning to the two horses. “So, the kids had been noticing that he liked her, so they kept saying, ‘oh, Chipper has a girlfriend.’”
Barbara Gallagher said she knew something was up when she got a call from Kubarth.
“Dear Stephanie gave me a call one night and said, I have a favor to ask, and I think you're the right person, and I thought, oh boy, what is she going to ask,” Gallagher said,
It was a bit unusual, but she asked for helping planning a wedding—for Chipper and Snickers.
“I thought it was exactly something they'd do here,” Kai Gaumond said with a laugh.
Kai and Johanna made the flowers for the wedding.
“I am very specific, so I’m like, how many would you like, are there specific colors, is there a color scheme for this wedding? And she was like, blue and white, and I'm like, ok, I can handle that,” Gaumond said.
Johanna also acted as wedding planner.
“It gave her that sense of having an important role and being valued with what she could offer,” Gaumond said.
The nine-minute video of the wedding shows all the details.
Johanna and Brooke served as bridesmaids. Daniel served as ring bearer and he carried a pillow with a glittery horse shoe on top. The horses walked down the aisle to traditional music.
“It was the closest to an honest to goodness church wedding that you've ever seen-- except with horses,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher wrote the vows, and she included as many equine terms as possible.
“The groom has been groomed to perfection in order to show his ‘unhaltered’ passion for his sweetheart,” she said, reading what she wrote.
And at the end, the officiant ended things with a kiss.
“Congratulations, you may kiss the bride, not kick the bride,” he said.
Chipper and Snickers rode off to “Happy Trails,” of course, leaving a trail of happiness behind for the kids.
“They've always loved to have fun,” Gaumond said. “It's a place that you can be goofy and everyone loves it and is accepting.”
Just a few short weeks after the ceremony, Kubarth admits the horses’ relationship may not go the distance.
“I hate to say it, but the honeymoon is over already,” she said, laughing. “She used to really like him, and they'd get turned out together. Now she tries to kick and bite him all the time.”
But the real love is between the kids and the horses, and the experience they have together.
“I consider this my own slice of heaven on earth. It is one of the most positive places I have ever spent time at,” Gallagher said.