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Spanish Fork • David Benedict said he was a bit skeptical about enrolling his daughter in a therapeutic horse riding program.

But a friend had recommended Hoofbeats to Healing in Utah County as a way to help his daughter's behavioral issues.

That was two years ago. He's not sure exactly how the horses work their magic on temper tantrums, but he says riding has had a measurable effect on his daughter Kate, now 8 years old.

"It's calmed her down and helps her relax," he said Saturday as he watched her ride an aged Missouri Fox Trotter around a covered arena near Spanish Fork. His daughter comes each week to ride.

Other parents who brought their children to ride Saturday said they, too, have seen improvement in children struggling with conditions as diverse as autism, depression and cerebral palsy.

The Hoofbeats to Healing program is managed by Tamera Tanner, who serves about 50 clients each week in a facility with nearly three dozen horses, mostly Missouri Fox Trotters and Norwegian Fjords. In addition to teaching clients to ride, she instructs them in other basics of horsemanship and showmanship. Many of Tanner's clients also show Fox Trotters in competitions in Utah and other states.

Part of the nonprofit Straighter Way Foundation, the program has grown in recent years. It is now in the process of moving to donated facilities in Saratoga Springs, where it will have indoor and outdoor arenas. Tanner is now trying to raise the money to build a handicapped-accessible bathroom and make other necessary improvements to the facility before she moves in.

"We're constantly fundraising," said Tanner, who combined her love of horses and a background in health care 10 years ago with the program. Although participants must pay — $75 for an evaluation and $50 per riding session — the money doesn't cover all the costs of leasing and operating a facility and the care and feeding of so many horses.

"We spend $25,000 a year just on hay," she said.

But the move to Saratoga Springs is a positive development for the program in that it no longer will have to pay rent. The program for the first time will own its own buildings and arena, which are movable. The Utah Department of Transportation is allowing the structures to remain on its property until it is needed at some point in the future. "Not having to lease a place anymore — that's going to take a huge burden away from us," she said.

Utah has a number of animal- and horse-assisted therapy programs for children and adults with cognitive, behavioral and physical disabilities. One of the most well known is the National Ability Center's Equestrian Program, based in Park City.

Hoofbeats to Healing's focus is on the unique experience that the Missouri Fox Trotter provides. Foxtrotters move in a distinctive and smoother way than other types of horses, which makes the breed a popular trail riding horse. While some horses may have a jarring trot, Foxtrotters seem to glide across the ground.

Tanner has all kinds of theories about how her organization's therapy works — she believes riding Foxtrotters can actually help the brain process more normally.

"I don't know how it works, but it does," said Shawnee Smith in Draper, who has taken her son, Colton to the Hoofbeats program each week for the last four years.

She said her son was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism at 15 months. She's tried a variety of things to help him, including chiropractic sessions. "We started horse therapy at 3," she said. "When we started it, he didn't talk, he didn't know who I was, he banged his head and he licked the ground."

Today, her son, who once attended a school for autistic children, is in a traditional first-grade classroom.

She credits horse therapy with her son's transformation. When times are tight, she says, her family can forgo a lot of things. "But we can't go without the horse therapy," she said. "It's totally changed our lives." —

Hoofbeats To Healing

The therapeutic riding program, part of the nonprofit Straighter Way Foundation, aims to help children and adults. Information: Tamera Tanner, 801- 836-4325.