Horse-riding farm gives special needs kids a leg up

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Story highlights

Harry Swimmer turned his farm into a horse camp for special needs children

Swimmer was set to retire when he met a girl with cerebral palsy who inspired him

Swimmer was honored as a 2016 Top 10 CNN Hero | Tribute Show video

Weddington, North Carolina CNN  — 

An encounter in Harry Swimmer’s local grocery store parking lot changed his life more than 20 years ago.

He met a girl in a wheelchair named Stacy. She was deaf and nonverbal. Swimmer learned she had cerebral palsy.

It gave him an idea.

“I wondered what might happen if I put her on a horse,” said Swimmer, who owns a farm near Charlotte, North Carolina.

Stacy and her grandmother visited his farm, where Swimmer helped her ride a pony.

“She just lit up like a candle,” said Swimmer. “That’s when I knew what I wanted to do.”

Soon after, Swimmer retired from the insurance industry, and he and his wife turned their lucrative for-profit horse farm into a nonprofit oasis for children with special needs.

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Top 10 CNN Hero Harry Swimmer
02:15 - Source: CNN

Now, at age 87, Swimmer and his organization, Mitey Riders, continue to provide free, certified equine-assisted therapy to young people with a range of disabilities, including muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome and autism.

“Horses are very special animals,” said Swimmer. “(They) are attuned to these children.”

Since 1994, Swimmer’s farmstead has hosted more than 800 children.

CNN’s Marissa Calhoun spoke with Swimmer about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: What kind of success have children in your program had over the years?

Harry Swimmer: These children come to me with all kinds of disabilities. Some come to us as young as 5 years old and grow up out here with us. Mitey Riders is a place where they can come and be themselves, and be with other children just like them. They bond with each other. They bond with their horses. And besides the fun, it is therapy for them.

The gait of a horse moves forward and backwards, side to side and up and down. When a child rides a horse, they’re getting feedback from the natural movement of the horse’s body, and that strengthens their core. I have had children take their first steps from our program when they weren’t able to stand or walk before. I’ve had children riding with me who became verbal when they were nonverbal. And I’ve also had children who have left me and gone off to college, graduated and done wonderful things.