Kim Wheatley remembers the first time her daughter Alexandra got on a horse. It was 21 years ago, when Alexandra was 5 years old. Alexandra was born with Down syndrome and autism, and up until that point, she had been totally nonverbal.
“But we got her on the horse, and all of a sudden she had all these vocalizations,” Wheatley said. “Like holy smokes, she’s waving to people and becoming social.”
At the time, Wheatley was working in marketing in the finance industry, but seeing the amazing reaction of her daughter on the back of that horse prompted her to change her life. She went back to school and became a physical therapist. Eventually, she decided to work with kids who have special needs, and given her daughter’s experience, she wanted to use horses.
Wheatley is the founder and head of Upside Therapeutic Riding, a Louisville nonprofit dedicated to the field of hippotherapy, which uses horseback riding as a form of both physical and occupational therapy.
Upside launched in 2008, and since then Wheatley estimates she’s worked with hundreds of high-needs children. She said riding gives these kids benefits they can’t get from typical therapies.
“It’s unbelievable. There’s nothing I could duplicate in a clinic like being on a horse,” she said. The therapy is so effective because it works so many systems at once. The child builds core strength — always a concern for those with Down syndrome — by sitting upright on the horse. It also builds coordination, stimulates senses, and increases sense of balance. “For the people it works for,” she said, “there’s no way to duplicate it.”
But Upside can’t keep up with the demand for its services. Currently Wheatley is seeing 27 kids on a regular basis, but there are 40 more on a waiting list. Also, Upside currently has no permanent home and operates out of the parking lot of the Rock Creed Riding Club, next to Seneca Park. This means Upside can only operate during the good-weather months, leaving a huge gap in its patients’ therapies.
To bring Upside to the next level, Wheatley has worked closely with the Louisville marketing and advertising firm PriceWeber. To assist Upside, PriceWeber has created a new logo, brochures and a website, and helped them manage their social media presence and set up a GoFundMe account. The GoFundMe account is aimed at helping Upside raise enough funds to buy a permanent home, where it can see patients all year long. (You can track their progress here.)
PriceWeber is doing all the work for Upside pro-bono.
Upside and PriceWeber first got connected through Susan Hovekamps, director of human resources at PriceWeber; her son, Hale, has Down syndrome and has gotten hippotherapy through Upside for the past several years. Hale had gotten other forms of therapy, but it always seemed like work to him, Hovekamps said. It was a different story at Upside.
“He didn’t view it as therapy, he viewed it as fun,” she said. Over the past several years, she’s seen a marked improvement in Hale’s posture and core strength. “It’s absolutely phenomenal. It’s life-changing.”
When Wheatley asked Hovekamps if she knew anyone at PriceWeber who could help her with some basic advertising and marketing related issues, the firm instead agreed to do a whole gamut of things for free.
Mike Nickerson, chief marketing officer at PriceWeber, said the firm decided to help Upside because they provide an essential therapeutic service for Louisville-area children who have a lot of challenges to overcome. “But if you’ve seen these kids in therapy, you know that the byproduct of what they do is pure joy,” he said. “We’ve been working on finding ways to express that joy, and the hope it creates for families in the creative (work) we’ve done for Upside. We hope that shines through.”
Looking ahead, Wheatley said her hope is to purchase a 238-acre site in eastern Jefferson County. She wants to provide 300 riding sessions a week, create indoor and outdoor riding arenas, have therapy and conference rooms, and stalls for the horses. Currently she commutes two hours every morning to get her four highly trained horses from their stables in Shelbyville, Ky., to bring them to Louisville. Having a Louisville site would ameliorate this.
Also, she hopes that someday she might even be able to draw at least a nominal salary. She employs three people, but sees no income from Upside. “It’s been a very difficult eight years, it’s a huge struggle,” she said. “If I wasn’t so passionate about what I was doing, I wouldn’t do it. But when I see some of the results we get, there’s no way I can stop.”