OGDEN -- Bean bags, squishy balls, stuffed animals and live horses are helping a group of local kids improve their motor skills.
The children are members of the Freedom Riders, a nonprofit organization that uses horses to help disabled children ages 3 to 18 become stronger and more flexible.
"Brianna is having so much fun, I don't think she realizes she's even working," said her mother, Wendy Heim. "The program is absolutely amazing. The gait of the horse really helps her balance. It's amazing what they can do for these kids."
Brianna, 6, was born with a metabolic disorder that has affected her gross motor skills, said Heim. The first-grader needs a walker to assist her. Being on a horse has strengthened her lower body muscles, which makes it easier for her to walk.
Freedom Riders was founded 34 years ago by South Ogden physical therapist Steve Spencer. His goal was to allow disabled children to experience what it's like to be like everyone else, said director Patti Adams.
"When the kids get up on the horse, they're able to feel a sense of freedom from their disability," Adams said. "Their spirits soar when they are on the horse. Not only is it fun, but it's therapeutic. They are strengthening their muscles, improving their balance and flexibility and even learning horsemanship qualities."
On Thursday afternoon, the kids performed what they learned over the summer. On horseback, some of the kids knocked over stuffed animals with squishy balls while others tossed a ring over a pole. Others threw balls into buckets. The horses walk clockwise and counter-clockwise, so the kids are able to work all of their muscle groups.
The program is held once a week from May to August, Adams said.
About 80 volunteers from Weber State University help with the program, which is held at the Golden Spike Arena.
Sarah Tenney's daughter, Emma, 9, has cerebral palsy, and the program has helped her walk independently.
"My husband is a physical therapist, and I'm a nurse. Despite our efforts at home, she still wasn't able to walk, but once she got on that horse, she was walking on her own within three months," Tenney said.
"I can say for sure that the horse therapy is what has helped Emma the most. She loves going to class and she loves the horses and the volunteers."
Pam Cragun's son Hunter, 11, is also a member of the program. Hunter has partial cerebral palsy and has weakness on his left side. Horse therapy has helped with his balance and coordination.
"At first he had a hard time holding on to the horse, but now he does it like a pro," Cragun said. "The social aspect of it is really good for him, too. He gets to be with other kids who are going through the same thing, and he has really bonded with the horses. They are very calm around him. This has been something he loves to do while getting the important benefits out of it."