Before Lilly Petrella began her therapeutic horseback riding sessions several years ago, her cerebral palsy kept her from walking and she couldn't sit on a horse alone.
Now Lilly, 8, can sit on a horse, steer, and help groom it.
And when volunteers at Reins of Life saw her walk unassisted for the first time, there were tears, said her mother, Deanna Petrella of Valparaiso.
"There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle, but I really think the hippotherapy was a major part in my daughter walking," Petrella said.
Petrella's daughter has been a client of Reins of Life, Michigan City, for the past few years. Reins of Life has locations in Michigan City and in South Bend, and has been offering therapeutic horseback riding since 1978.
Each week, Reins of Life has about 100 students taking therapeutic horseback riding lessons, also called hippotherapy, from certified instructors at one of their barns. Clients come from all around northern Indiana as well as southern Michigan.
The clients have a range of diagnoses, such as depression, ADHD and cerebral palsy, and include individuals on the autism spectrum, said Amanda Bubb, an instructor and barn manager for Reins of Life. The lessons are available for children and adults, although about 80 percent of clients are under 18 years old, Bubb said.
"We teach riding skills, but we also work on social, physical, cognitive and emotional goals," she said.
She said the students learn how to gather equipment, groom and tack the horses as well as ride.
"It teaches sequencing, and lets them bond with the horses and volunteers," she said. "After they ride, they help untack the horses, put things away and give the horses a treat."
Lessons can be private, semi-private or in groups. The cost is $20 for a weekly group lesson, $30 for a semi-private lesson and $35 for a private lesson. Lessons are sold in eight-week blocks. Scholarships are available based on financial need, Bubb said.
Lessons are also individualized to meet the needs of the students.
"Across the board, they are a huge confidence booster," Bubb said. "It's a self-esteem boost for them to be in control of an animal so much bigger than they are."
Deanna Petrella said Lilly's riding lessons are a fun way for her to get physical therapy for the muscle tightness in her legs.
"The horse naturally stretches her hamstrings, and the horse warms her muscles while it stretches them," she said.
Petrella said Lilly's progress has been amazing.
"Every tiny little step she makes takes my breath away," she said. "And who would've thought it would be because of a horse? It's breathtaking."