Alumna uses equine therapy to help patients overcome physical and emotional barriers

contact: Paula M. Davis
| WMU News

Read more stories about Bronco entrepreneurs in the spring 2018 issue of W Magazine.

Courtney Sumpter preps Zander to climb aboard Adele, his therapy horse.

Sumpter preps Zander to climb aboard Adele

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Two years ago, 6-year-old Zander Tewksbury could not take a single unassisted step.

Because of a rare condition called Pitt Hopkins syndrome, doctors said he would likely never walk. Limited success after years of physical therapy seemed to confirm that prognosis, and the family's insurer refused to continue paying for treatments.

Then he met a Western Michigan University alumna and her therapy horse Adele.

Within months of riding Adele, strengthening muscles that helped his balance and motor control, Zander took his first series of toddling, independent steps on his fifth birthday.

"I was crying. I couldn't believe he had actually done it," says his mother, Krystal Middaugh. "They said he never would."

Emotional scenes like that are not uncommon at Northern Michigan Equine Therapy, says Courtney Sumpter, a WMU-trained occupational therapist and founder of NMET, a hippotherapy-based rehabilitation center in Boyne City. Hippotherapy is a treatment using horseback riding to improve balance, muscle coordination and motor control.

"We've had many tears of joy, especially with that child. Now, he's walking my whole barn aisleway."

This summer, the goal is for Zander to use his developing skill to walk his mom to the alter at her wedding.

WMU OT alumna and entrepreneur Courtney Sumpter talks about how she uses equine therapy to help people break through their physical and emotional barriers.

Where it all began

In 2011, coincidentally the year Zander was born, Sumpter established NMET to help people overcome physical and even emotional problems impeding their daily living activities. And her work is especially impactful when there's a breakthrough after stalled progress.

"I get a lot of referrals from different therapists who have been working with clients for years. A lot of people refer patients to me to get them to that next level."

That's been her mission statement, she says, "to reach more individuals who were hitting plateaus."

Using a horse as her therapeutic tool has often been the difference-maker in her work, something Sumpter first learned she could do while earning her bachelor's and master's degrees in WMU's occupational therapy program, which is ranked among the top 50 OT programs in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

"Kalamazoo is where it all began," she says.

Everything fell into place

When she started at WMU in 2002, Sumpter didn't know what degree to pursue. Engineering was a thought; she excelled at figuring out and fixing things. She seriously considered nursing, as she also enjoyed working one-on-one with people. Then she learned about occupational therapy, and it seemed to perfectly fit her personality and talents.

"Fixing the human body is how I look at it," she says. "Engineering the human body back to independence is what I love to do."

Learning to become an OT at WMU "was an extremely enjoyable experience. All my professors knew my name. It was just a great program and a wonderful experience, a lot of hands on. That was important to me. I'm not one to sit around."

Her college years also offered a chance to get back to horseback riding, something she enjoyed growing up in suburban Detroit. So, she began volunteering and then working at the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center near Kalamazoo and soon realized she could integrate her love for horses with her new vocation.

"It was a very farfetched dream, that I could possibly combine the two. And once I got into the occupational therapy program, I realized it would be a perfect match for me.

"Everything fell into place."

Equine-assisted therapy

Courtney and Zander high-five as Zander sits atop Adele, his therapy horse.

Sumpter, Zander and Adele

Schooling completed in 2007, she returned to the Detroit area and worked part-time in an outpatient treatment center and part-time at Stable Possibilities, an equine-assisted therapy business owned by fellow alumna and occupational therapist, Susan Vergilio.

Working in both settings, Sumpter noticed equine-assisted therapy helped her patients meet their goals more quickly than when she used a therapy ball or other traditional equipment. This was especially true with patients who had neurological impairments, including brain or spinal cord injuries.

It's not miraculous. In some ways, it's mechanical. Over time, horseback riding strengthens muscles that support balance, coordination and posture. Sumpter says that sitting astride a horse naturally engages the brain and stimulates muscles all over the body.

"Nobody wants to fall off a horse. That's automatically retraining the brain how to sit and balance," she says.

"When the horse is moving, the brain used to a sedentary lifestyle is introduced to new sensations of movement, creating neurological pathways of rhythmic movement," says Sumpter, who is certified in hippotherapy by the American Hippotherapy Association.

When Zander first sat on Adele he didn't have the core strength to hold himself upright and his hips weren't accustomed to the rhythmic, forward motion one experiences walking.

"With weekly sessions, the brain and muscles learn the new movements, allowing me to continuously build on learned skills," she explains.

About two years into treatment, her 6-year-old client has the strength and balance to sit upright independently at length—this alone has been a made a big difference in his quality of life. And after Zander is off the horse's back and Sumpter begins working with him on the ground, he's able to move his hips and legs forward in a rhythm and motion similar to what he experienced on the horse.

With the help of Sumpter, Adele and other staff at the center, he has continued to progress.

"They've been amazing. They are such big advocates for him," his mother says. "And they don't give up."

Entrepreneurially inclined

Sumpter never considered herself to be entrepreneurial, but she is driven in general and passionate about hippotherapy. After moving to northeastern Michigan to take a job in a hospital and fulfill her desire to live in a more rural region, she established NMET as a sideline. But it was unplanned. A physician at the hospital learned about her background in equine-assisted therapy and asked her to work with his autistic son. NMET grew from there.

"I learned a lot and got a lot of experience working in hospitals and outpatient facilities. All of that gave me the boost to go out on my own, because I felt I had my own knowledge to share," she says.

The center became her full-time enterprise in 2015. She started NMET as an LLC and later changed it to a nonprofit so she could fundraise and seek grants for families like Zander's, who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford ongoing treatment.

The occupational therapist specializes in treating people who've had a brain or spinal cord injury, but also many other kinds of impairments.

The operation keeps her busy. Last year, she took clients through 800 sessions. That includes participants in programs established to teach people how to interact with and care for horses—programs for people who have disabilities, for at-risk youth, and for veterans and first responders.

She started these other programs knowing that learning to ride and care for a horse is not only a skill builder, but can be confidence boosting and calming, something she has witnessed with clients who suffer from anxiety, depression or similar challenges. And clients often bond with her horses.

"I always say, 'Horses don't judge.' They don't care what your background is. They don't care what your disability or ability is. None of that comes into a session," she says. "They are there to be a constant and a support to everyone who comes out."

The same can be said of Sumpter.

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