Healing With Horses: How Therapeutic Riding Changes Lives (Part 1)

A single word can change someone’s life — even if a horse is on the listening end. Several equine therapy programs are witnessing small triumphs.

Nancy King, director of A Horse Connection
Nancy King, director of A Horse Connection

A single word has the power to change a person’s life — even if a horse is on the listening end.

Take the case of a young boy with autism, crippled by a condition known as echolalia. As with an echo, it’s characterized by the immediate and automatic repetition of words or phrases spoken by others, which makes meaningful conversation impossible.

TJ came to the therapeutic riding program at A Horse Connection in Rhinebeck, N.Y. as part of his therapy. But when director Nancy King would say, “Are you going to ride Skarloey?” T.J. would only respond, “Are you going to ride Skarloey?” Or he might respond with a line from a movie: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” And although that was true, it was also as far as T.J. could take the discussion.

Despite this, it became obvious that T.J. was drawn to a particular horse because whenever he came to ride, he’d run to Skarloey, reach up high and put his hand on the horse’s chest. “Go ahead, make my day,” T.J. might say. Or, “Houston, we have a problem.”

And then one day, T.J. had a breakthrough — he said something spontaneously. It was communication, not repetition. When he put his hand on Skarloey’s chest, T.J. said, “Heart. Beat.”

Nancy King has many of these types of stories to tell. As the owner of A Horse Connection, she has been witnessing these small triumphs for as long as she has been running the program. A Horse Connection offers hippotherapy (from the Greek word hippos, meaning horse), therapeutic riding and equine assisted therapy sessions.

Nancy King also has a herd of miniature horses, which, frankly, are off-the-chain cute ambassadors for her business. They are, according to King, “very good at being little co-therapists for different types of scenarios because not everyone is suitable for hippotherapy.”

A Miracle of Movement

Photo courtesy A Horse Connection.
Photo courtesy A Horse Connection.

Hippotherapy is different from therapeutic riding. It focuses exclusively on the body. When hippotherapy is done without using a saddle, the horse’s gait moves the spine and pelvis of the rider in a way that simulates walking or running. It strengthens the core muscles and nerves, training the impaired body to move correctly.

“When I put a patient on a horse, it’s an automatic workout. They can’t control it,” says Karen Stanley-White, executive director of the Saratoga Therapeutic Equestrian Program (STEP). “The horse’s movement stimulates the rider’s trunk, which automatically contracts and gets stronger, or if it’s too stiff, it begins to stretch. It’s an absolute miracle of movement.”

People come to hippotherapy with a variety of physical disorders including cerebral palsy, spina bifida, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and autism. “We have veterans. My oldest client is 82,” says Stanley-White.

In classical hippotherapy, the patient rides bareback while the therapist “long lines” the horse. “The horse is driven from behind with my reins like I’m driving a cart horse, and the rider sits on the horse with 2 side walkers,” she says.

Stanley-White developed her copyrighted program, STEP-up, which incorporates the use of classical hippotherapy techniques. “I implement treatment as a physical therapist using the horse in my treatment strategy. It’s a link between medical rehabilitation and helping an adult or a child learn and enjoy recreational riding.”

Alyssa, a little girl with cerebral palsy in a motorized wheelchair, “had very poor balance when she first started,” says King of A Horse Connection. “She couldn’t keep her body upright at all; she would just flop right down.”

After months of therapy on a horse named Martha, Alyssa began to be able to hold herself up. “She can’t walk, but she was able to sit up in her chair better in terms of posture. This helped her do things at a table like eating a meal and doing schoolwork,” says King. “It’s all connected to function. For a kid to be able to sit upright is really important to them in so many ways.”

Independent Spirits

Even though Kathleen is blind, she was determined to become the best rider in her class at Pegasus Therapeutic Riding in Brewster, N.Y. Barely into her teens, Kathleen said her ultimate goal was to be independent, and she wasn’t afraid to tell her instructor, Emily Wygod, all about it.

quote1“I wasn’t comfortable in the beginning having her go off lead or be without a side walker,” says Wygood. “But she was arguing with me every week — I don’t want my side walker! I want to be independent! So I told her to prove that she’s that good of a rider.”

And Kathleen delivered. She worked hard, and every week she improved. “We have to use a lot of verbal instruction, but I completely trust her to be off lead and follow directions,” says Wygod. “To be independent and achieve that skill — I don’t think she ever thought she could really have that.”

Stanley-White at STEP once worked with a 7-year-old boy named Danny Stopera who had spina bifida, cortical blindness, dislocated hips and a heart condition. He weighed only 35 pounds. He never spoke. But when she put him in the saddle, Danny would break into smiles and laughter.

“His mother told me he was gravely ill, and that riding with me was all he had in life. He stayed with me all summer into the fall and even went to the horse show at the farm. Of course, I had to support him on the horse, but my little guy got his ribbons. And then he passed away in his sleep a week after. His mother said it’s because of me and Dolly the horse that his heart kept going.”

Steve is the first WWII veteran to participate in the Pegasus Patriots program.
Steve is the first World War II veteran to participate in the Pegasus Patriots program, which works with veterans for no charge. Photo courtesy Christine Fitzgerald, Pegasus Therapeutic Riding.

Learning Skills

In many ways, horses turn physical therapy into an adventure. But there’s much more to it than mounted riding. The Wings program at Pegasus uses equine-assisted activities to work with groups such as at-risk children, victims of domestic abuse and victims of human trafficking. The Pegasus Patriots program works with veterans for free. These programs include mounted and unmounted activities and can be held any time of the year, usually in the barn.

“There’s a lot of social interaction that goes on between the participants and the volunteers, staff and the horses,” says Pegasus communications director Christine Fitzgerald. “They learn things like how to lead a horse, which is great for their self-confidence, especially if they’ve never worked with a horse before.”

Nancy King takes her miniature horses to nursing homes and groups with special needs. “For someone in their thirties with special needs, learning how to open a gate with a latch or just hold the rope in 2 hands is profound.”

Next, in Part 2: As a child with autism, Katie Ucker struggled with muscle weakness and social interactions. But she always had a connection with animals — so her family decided to give therapeutic horse riding a try. Today, she’s an independent rider who recently won 2 gold medals in the Special Olympics. Continue on to Part 2.

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