On horseback, Nicole Matsushita (right) and Mason Vann (left) listen to their certified instructor, Ashley Hathaway, at a therapeutic riding session Nicole at Shea Center in San Juan Capistrano.
On horseback, Nicole Matsushita (right) and Mason Vann (left) listen to their certified instructor, Ashley Hathaway, at a therapeutic riding session at Shea Center in San Juan Capistrano.

By RYOKO NAKAMURA, Rafu Japanese Staff Writer

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — When Yukiyo Matsushita hands her daughter, Nicole, a helmet and tells her “Go” in sign language, Nicole shows a full smile on her face. She understands that she is going to enjoy horseback riding.

Nicole was born in 2002 with hearing loss, a speech disability, and intellectual disabilities. None of the countless exams and tests revealed to Vincent and Yukiyo Matsushita what their beloved daughter was suffering from. They spent seven restless years until they finally received the diagnosis.

It was a very rare disorder called Chromosome 7q deletion. Only 50 cases have been identified around the world. There’s no cure.

Since Nicole was also experiencing developmental delays, she was already getting physical, occupational, and speech therapies as a child. The Matsushitas heard about the benefits of therapeutic riding and asked Nicole’s doctor to write her a referral.

The Shea Center

Located approximately 55 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, the Shea Center in San Juan Capistrano has been sharing love, hope, and smiles with people with various disabilities through therapeutic riding programs since 1978.

It was founded by Nancy and Derek Lewis for their son, Michael, who was born with cerebral palsy. Fran Joswick was the first instructor and executive director.

The Shea Center has horses.
The Shea Center has 20 therapy horses.

This simple expression of parents’ love for their children has received tremendous support over the years from the community, including the J.F. Shea Co., Inc., which donated seven acres of land to the center for a permanent facility in 2001.

The center now serves over 650 riders each year, ranging from age two to 80, with more than 65 diagnoses, including autism, cerebral palsy, developmental delay, and Down syndrome. It owns 20 therapeutic horses that are all donated, and annually over 800 volunteers support its programs.

Accredited by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, formerly known as the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, the Shea Center offers therapeutic riding and hippotherapy.

Therapeutic riding is directed by certified instructors to improve riders’ strength, balance, coordination, and speech. Hippotherapy, on the other hand, is a type of therapy that utilizes equine movement. It is administered one-on-one by a licensed therapist and focuses on physical, occupational, or speech and language goals, depending on each patient’s needs.

The center is the only facility on the West Coast equipped with a full fitness center for disabled people. It also offers therapeutic instructor training courses, and Shea-trained instructors are in almost every state in the U.S. as well as in other 15 countries around the world.

Of the 2.4 million annual operation cost, more than half comes from fundraising events, 16% is from donations and grants, and 13% is from program fees. According to the center, 74 cents of each dollar raised goes directly into programs and services.

Nicole enjoys feeding her horse carrots that she cut before the session.
Nicole enjoys feeding her horse carrots that she cut before the session.

The Benefits

Nicole starts her therapy by cutting carrots at a stable with help from a volunteer. The carrots are for her horse, but this activity helps Nicole increase her independence and develop social skills.

When she first started hippotherapy four years ago with an occupational therapist, her walking balance was off, and she couldn’t sit on horseback properly. Through the therapy, she strengthened her abdominal and back muscles, and two years later, she was transferred to therapeutic riding group lessons taught by certified instructors.

Several different animal-assisted therapies are available in the U.S. today, including therapies with dogs and dolphins. However, the signature benefit of therapeutic horseback riding is that it contains four important elements to aid people in need: medical, educational, sports, and recreational.

When walking, a horse’s back moves in three dimensions: up and down, right and left, and back and forth, which efficiently mimics humans’ movements. During a 45-minute session, a rider’s hip rotates in three dimensions at least 3,000 times, so he/she gets the benefit of walking exercise more efficiently by just sitting on horseback.

Through listening to instructors and giving “Go” or “Stop” commands to horses, riders can increase their ability to process information while also improving their language and communication skills.

Because many people with disabilities are denied opportunities to participate in sports, therapeutic riding offers them a sports experience as well as a hobby, which can lead to increasing clients’ self-esteem and confidence.

A Friend to Care for

Ashley Hathaway, a certified instructor, is teaching Nicole how to perform tasks with as little assistance as possible. This practice will carry over into Nicole’s daily activities; she is improving her balance and coordination so that she can be more secure in walking, and following directions to develop her communication skills.

Nicole used to be anxious while riding and would not really communicate with her horse and her volunteers, but Hathaway has seen her improve dramatically.

“She now tells her horse to ‘go’ by touching her horse’s neck without any help from her volunteers. She is much more willing to hold her reins and will even pull them back to stop her horse. She seems to enjoy riding,” said Hathaway.

These improvements were recognizable to Nicole’s mother, Yukiyo, as well. “Until she found therapeutic riding, she really didn’t have anything to look forward to in her life. We rarely saw her smile. But now, she has found a friend she cares for. By taking care of horses, she has developed independence,” said Yukiyo.

After four years of therapy, Nicole is now able to keep her balance on horseback while going fast.
After four years of therapy, Nicole is now able to keep her balance on horseback while going fast.

Light After Darkness

When Nicole’s doctor confirmed that she was born deaf, Vincent and Yukiyo felt as if they’d fallen into a bottomless abyss. A soundless world was beyond their imagination. Just trying to guess what it would be like filled them with anxiety, and they despaired for their daughter’s future.

During the seven anguished years until Nicole’s diagnosis was confirmed, she suffered from a variety of symptoms, including unexplained seizures that first started when she was four months old.

Yukiyo Matsushita looks at her beloved daughter, Nicole, at her Newport Beach residence. The Matsushita family hopes someday to have a horse for Nicole.
Yukiyo Matsushita looks at her beloved daughter, Nicole, at their Newport Beach residence. The family hopes someday to have a horse for Nicole.

Electroencephalograms and magnetic resonance imaging failed to determine the cause. The seizures continued for four years. In the meantime, Nicole suffered from developmental delays. It took six years for her to take her first step.

After countless tests by specialists in neurology, genetics, and orthopedics, a genetic doctor finally diagnosed her with Chromosome 7q deletion, which was sporadic, and there was nothing they could have done to prevent it.

Yukiyo felt a sense of relief. “Since Nicole’s birth, I had been tortured by a guilty conscience because I thought I was accountable for her suffering. I thought I did something terribly wrong while I was pregnant,” she said.

While the Matsushitas always wanted Nicole to be happy regardless of her diagnosis, they struggled to accept the fact that their beloved child was born with such a serious disability.

“It wasn’t discrimination from others; it came from within us. We had prejudice against disabilities hidden deep inside ourselves. It was very hard for us to be open and talk about Nicole’s condition in public,” Yukiyo recalls.

When they joined the Los Angeles-based support group Japanese Speaking Parents Association of Children with Challenges, they were encouraged by the realization that they were not alone.

Surrounded by parents who had followed the same dark path, yet are now active advocates for people with disabilities, Vincent and Yukiyo realized, “If we, as parents, don’t stand up for Nicole, who will?”

The Matsushitas will continue working with Nicole on improving her ability to become as independent as possible with the help of horses. Having a horse for Nicole is their future dream.

To learn more about the Shea Center, visit www.sheacenter.org. For more information about the support group JSPACC, go to www.jspacc.org.

Photos by RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo

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