Horses have always been a major part of my life. I have been riding since I
was four years old. I love walking into the barn in the morning to hear the steady
beat of horseshoes on cement, and the wonderful scent of hay and leather
There is nothing more peaceful than the serenity of the horse show
grounds in the early morning. The sight of horses being exercised in the first rays
of sun is simply breathtaking. Nothing makes me feel more alive than riding a
horse. I love the freedom I feel when galloping and jumping in the field.
I became interested in therapeutic riding when my cousin began riding at
A Horse Connection, a therapeutic riding facility in Rhinebeck, New York. So far,
the progress he has made has been incredible. Several weeks before the
completion of this book, he was able to steer his horse by himself, with no
sidewalkers or leaders.
This was a huge accomplishment for him. His mother was very pleased
with his achievement, but she was very nervous at the same time. There is
certainly a lot of trust involved. The parents need to have confidence that the
horse and the therapists are going to take care of their child.
This was my inspiration for choosing to study therapeutic horsemanship
for my senior thesis. Seeing the joy on faces of these riders when they come for
their lesson has been extraordinary. They have all made so many improvements.
One little boy who is very autistic and doesn't speak actually went up to another
rider and greeted her.
The most touching moment however, was when this same child came up
to me, grabbed my hand, and brought me over to his horse. This was a very
special moment, because it is not easy for an autistic child to reach out to others.
My project is a study of the ways in which therapeutic horsemanship helps
people with various disabilities, both emotional and physical. This project consists
of visiting two therapeutic facilities, CTREE and A Horse Connection, to interview
the therapists and watch the lessons. I saw many different riders, and chose
three to focus on. Using this information, I decided to create this book to help
show how therapeutic riding is beneficial.
In therapeutic riding the connections must be made between therapist,
rider, horse, and parent. Who knows what progress can be made when this
connection is made.
Center for Therapeutic Riding on the East End (CTREE) is located at Wolffer
Estate Stables in Sagaponack, New York. CTREE is run by Amanda Ross and Karen
Bocksel. The main focus of CTREE is developmental disabilities, such as Autism,
ADHD/ADD, sensory issues, and developmental delays.
The instructors at CTREE are certified with North American Riding for the
Handicapped Association (NARHA). The sessions follow NARHA guidelines and are
based on the horse's unique three-dimensional movement. They use changes in
gait, postural positioning, and direction to help stimulate the rider's visual,
motor, and vestibular systems.
Riders at CTREE also participate in other activities, such as grooming and
horse care, which aid in the function of their fine motor skills. Each rider's needs
are evaluated based on the participation of parents and caregivers. This helps
CTREE decide whether or not they can safely and effectively meet their needs.
Amanda Ross is the President and Founder of CTREE. She has been riding
since she was six, and has had formal training in dressage and stadium jumping.
Amanda was inspired to begin this program several years ago after seeing the
film "Autism Speaks," which raised public awareness about autism. She received
a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and a M.A. from New York University. She is a
Certified Riding Instructor with NARHA.
Karen Bocksel, CTREE's Program Director, has been involved with the
therapeutic riding industry for nearly twenty years. She is a NARHA Advanced
Instructor, NARHA State Chair, and President of the New York State Therapeutic
Riding Organization (NYSTRO). She has worked with Therapeutic Riding at
Centenary and Somerset Hills Handicapped Riding Center. Karen served four
years as NARHA Region Two Representative.
A Horse Connection is located at the Southlands Foundation in Rhinebeck,
New York. This program is run by Nancy King, MS, OTR/L. There are about ten
ponies used for riding, as well as three miniature horses for other therapeutic
purposes such as going to nursing homes and schools for special needs. The most
common disability that A Horse Connection works with is cerebral palsy, but they
also help with Autism, ADHD/ADD, schizophrenia, spina bifida, depression, and
traumatic brain injury, among others.
A Horse Connection hopes for their riders to become as independent as
possible, and be as confident as anyone else their age despite any setbacks.
Other animals, such as donkeys, goats, sheep, and pigs, are located near the
farm. Sometimes the riders will visit these animals during their session. Sessions
at A Horse Connection focus on increasing attention span, coping skills, problem
solving, and memory.
Nancy King started out as an occupational therapist at the Anderson
School for developmentally disabled children. She approached Southlands
Foundation when she was looking for a home for her program. At the same time,
Southlands was looking for someone to run a therapeutic program for them.
Their similar views made it easy to incorporate the program.
Nancy is a NARHA Registered Therapist, a member of the American
Hippotherapy Association, Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMHA)
and the New York State Occupational Therapy Association.
Some people at AHC are trained to work with both horses and disabilities.
Some people are trained for one or the other, and some people have no training
at all. AHC provides additional training for everyone, regardless of experience.
Rope bridles are used because they are more comfortable for the horse to
wear. Reins and a lead rope are attached to the bridle. A bareback pad has a
handle on the front for extra support. It does not have stirrups, which might
restrict the movement of an unbalanced rider. This Velcro belt has handles for
the sidewalkers to hold on to if the rider loses balance. There are sidewalkers on
both sides of the horse. A ramp provides an easier way for riders with
wheelchairs or walkers to get on the horse.
Today, Nick is going to ride a pony named Root Beer. But before he can
ride, he must get his horse ready for the lesson. This process is called tacking up.
Root Beer wears different equipment than the other horses. Instead of wearing a
leather saddle and bridle, she wears a special bareback pad, and a rope halter on
her face. When Root Beer is tacked up, Nick puts fly spray on her legs to make
her more comfortable. Sometimes the riders will help groom their ponies. There
is a specific order in which a horse must be groomed, so this helps the rider learn
There are a wide variety of exercises that can assist in the improvement of
the rider. Some exercises can work well for everyone, and some are designed for
specific problems. Riding incorporates activities such as left and right
differentiation, increased body awareness, and better motor skills. The rhythmic
movement of the horse helps to stimulate nerves.
Rings are used to improve coordination. The sidewalker varies where she
holds the rings. Another technique is to have the rider hold out their arms. The
sidewalker will then place the rings on the rider's arms, and they will have to hold
their arms up to avoid dropping the rings.
Being able to identify the parts of a horse is very helpful to the riders. A
horse is drawn on a board, and the parts are written on Velcro name tags. The
rider reads the word and then places it on the appropriate area of the drawing.
Riding backwards and sideways helps to strengthen muscles and activates
extension and trunk control. Some riding arenas have letters on the wall. The
therapist can ask the rider to steer their horse to a certain letter, or spell out a
Steering and stopping the horse helps the rider to learn control. It can
also help the rider gain confidence, because they are making the horse do what
they ask with very little help. Riders with very good balance may even be able to
trot. Trotting is quicker than walking, so the rider must have enough upper body
strength. When the horse trots, the rider is constantly being thrown off balance,
requiring the rider's muscles to contract and relax in an attempt to rebalance.
Other activities can include reaching for the ears and tail, twisting at the waist,
doing arm circles, and holding their arms up or to the side.
Rachael is only in Kindergarten, but she has no trouble sounding out the names of
the parts of a horse and recognizing where they belong.
Rachael was hesitant to ride without a leader at first, but she has been gaining
confidence. She is now able to steer her horse by herself around jumps and cones
in an obstacle course.
Nick practices Around the World. Around The World is a very common
strengthening exercise. The rider moves from a forward position to sideways,
then backwards, sideways, and back to forward.
William recognizes letters on paper cards. Karen puts the letters in different
areas of the ring, and asks William to point to a certain letter. Sometimes he
spells out words, such as his name or "horse".
Rachael has a mild case of autism. She is easily distracted by other things
in the ring such as a vest hanging on a fence, a dog, or other people in the middle
of the ring. She has formed a bond with her horse Katy, and gives her a hug after
William has a very severe case of autism. He is unable to speak, and has a
hard time balancing. William's first session lasted only a few minutes, but since
then the length of his session has been increasing. In William's most recent
session he was able to right himself without help from the sidewalkers for the
Nick rides horses to help him with his posture and other developmental
issues. He has shown great progress so far. In one of his recent sessions, he rode
in a regular saddle. He was able to steer his horse without the help of sidewalkers
or a leader. He loves coming to his sessions and never seems to stop smiling.
A part of what makes this kind of therapy unique is having an animal
present as a third party. The horses are essentially the co-therapists. They are
not judgmental, whereas a human therapist will take notes and monitor the
students. Children feel more comfortable around the therapists and the horse
than they would around only the therapist.
The horses are carefully selected based on temperament and soundness.
They have to learn to stop quickly, turn fast, and walk without pulling. They learn
to be more responsive both physically and mentally. They also have to be relaxed
so that the riders are more comfortable around them. The sessions can often be
mentally stressful for the horse. They try very hard to keep an unbalanced rider
from falling by shifting position, and shut out loud noises that the rider cannot
control. Being closely surrounded by many people is also contrary to the nature
Each horse has their own unique personality. Mosley has a very wide back
and a smooth stride that is very comforting to someone with limited mobility.
Katy has a short pony stride, which provides more stimulus to the rider. Root
Beer is a mixture of both. She has a more average build, with a quick pony stride.
Mosley's smooth walk is very relaxing to William. Nick helps tack up his
horse. Nick holds on while Root Beer trots. Amanda asks Rachael if she wants to
try steering on her own today. Nick reaches for Root Beer's tail. Nick hands the
rings to Nancy. Rachael steers Katy around a water jump. William's father walks
alongside to help him stay on.
Hippotherapy uses the horses' movement for occupational, speech, or
physical therapy. Riders do not learn specific skills. Horses are chosen based on
unique movement qualities. They need to be tolerant of unusual movements by
the rider. The rider does not have control of the horse. The leader is responsible
for controlling the horse. Hippotherapy is provided by a licensed therapist in
Speech, Occupational, or Physical therapy. The benefits of hippotherapy can be
physical improvements, such as posture, balance, and mobility, as well as
psychological improvements in behavior and communication skills.
Therapeutic riding has more of an emphasis on riding skills such as
steering and stopping the horse. These sessions are designed to help people with
special needs fulfill their desire to ride horses. Sidewalkers are used to help keep
the rider balanced. The leader can either be the instructor, or someone trained
and supervised by the instructor. Horses used for therapeutic riding must have a
good temperament, because they can either be lead by a leader or controlled
independently by the student. The rider usually has enough balance and head
control to sit in a forward position on the horse.
Autism: Autism is a severe developmental disorder beginning within the first
three years of life. Autistic children may have delays in language, play, or social
interaction. Language develops either slowly or not at all, so communications are
made with gestures instead of words. Autistic children can be extra sensitive to
touch and unresponsive to pain.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): ADHD/ADD is characterized by
hyperactivity or inattention. Children with ADHD have difficulty with
organization, such as forgetting to turn in assignments or not managing their
time well. People with ADD are usually average or above-average intelligence.
Asperger Syndrome: Asperger Syndrome is described as a form of autism.
Children with Aspergers may have difficulties with social skills or reading body
language. They have obsessive routines and prefer sameness. They can also be
overly sensitive to sounds or lights that no one else seems to notice.
Cerebral Palsy: Cerebral palsy is a group of chronic conditions that affect body
movement and muscle coordination. It is caused by damage to one or more
specific areas of the brain, which usually occurs before, during, or shortly after
birth. Cerebral palsy can cause muscle tightness, difficulty breathing leading to
postural difficulties, involuntary movement, and problems with speech, hearing,
Multiple Sclerosis: Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease that affects the central
nervous system. Symptoms can be mild or severe, and include numbness in the
limbs, paralysis, or loss of vision. The severity of multiple sclerosis varies from
one person to another.
Spina Bifida: Spina bifida is a birth defect that affects the spinal column. It causes
various degrees of leg paralysis, spine curvature, and coordination problems.
Unbalanced muscle strength can cause deformities in the spine, hip, or foot.
Another common problem is an accumulation of fluid in the brain.