In the field of therapeutic horse riding, sensory riding trails offer riders a learning experience among forest paths, gentle hills, fresh air, and man-made activities or obstacles. It challenges the riders’ balance and steering skills, along with the need for focus and attention.
The Pegasus Farm Sensory Trail is on 7 acres dotted with activity stations and marked trails. “Just being outside in the different elements of the weather — whether it be sun, wind, a little bit of rain — that extra sensory input is great for our riders,” says Emily Wygod, instructor at Pegasus Therapeutic Riding.
There’s a Sniff and Smell activity station mounted on a tree, so riders must stretch while balancing in the saddle to reach the scent box.
Inside, they might find an orange or an apple and plastic containers filled with cotton balls soaked in scents like cinnamon or lemon. Riders practice their language skills by discussing the experience.
The Snake Hill Steering activity station uses road signs and a winding trail where riders follow directions to stop, start and steer their horses through the course. A music station allows riders to play a xylophone, bells, maracas, drums and other handheld instruments.
“We address the different senses in terms of how they affect motion and movement and where you are in terms of space and gravity,” says Wygod.
“We try to attack all aspects of the rider while up on the trail. It’s a day off to enjoy the trail and be outside, and they usually don’t realize how hard they’re working. The sensory trail is a place where our riders can escape, especially since a lot of our riders wouldn’t be able to go on a hike or be by themselves in the woods.”
Healing Body and Spirit
“The rhythmic movement of the horse stimulates the patterns in the brain and the body to help calm and teach appropriate movement,” says Karen Stanley-White, executive director of the Saratoga Therapeutic Equestrian Program (STEP).
This happens because a horse’s movement is similar to the spinal movement in a human being. “When you have a person with abnormal movement, and you put them on a horse that moves really well, you stimulate normal movement,” says Stanley-White.
Charlie, who is 4 years old, has a condition involving his bones and joints — but he doesn’t let that stop him. “He has the spirit of a much wiser and older person inside him,” says Wygod. “He’s very outgoing and up for anything. He’s so mature, you forget how young he is.”
Charlie started off riding Sprout and went on to ride a number of others. “He’s so tiny that he’s one of our only kids who rides our miniature horse, but he’s also ridden ponies and even a regular-size horse,” says Wygod.
She adds that riding will help with his posture, balance, alignment and motor control, along with the different therapies he receives.
Unlike Charlie, Talbot wasn’t born with a movement disorder. Hit by a car as she was crossing the street, she survived with a traumatic brain injury. Though she was already an accomplished rider, she couldn’t walk when she came to Pegasus. Now her mother says her recovery is “miraculous.”
“When I first started working with her,” says Wygod, “she would ask me questions like ‘Have I ridden before? I don’t know how to get on the horse. I don’t remember what my reins are.’ But after that first semester, it started coming back. She knew how to hold her reins and how to steer. She knew the rhythm of posting. It was all still there. She just needed to get to that point where she could trust her body.
Talbot has become one of the more advanced riders at Pegasus. “She has such a soft hand with the horses,” says Wygod. “It’s a really good ride for them, which is great because our horses are really important to us.
A Special Kind of Horse
Of course, the horse is at the very center of equine therapy. But not just any horse will do. “I could have a hundred horses given to me, and only 3 would be appropriate for this,” says Stanley-White.
She likes horses that are older because they’ve been worked, and they know their job. But most important, Stanley-White says, horses have to be sound. This means they have a 4-beat walk and a 2-beat trot, which is similar to human walking and running.
“They can’t be lame in any gait. They must have rhythmic movement that is balanced,” she says. “Some horses I can teach and retrain to be better balanced, but the actual basis has to be there.”
When people don’t walk correctly, such as with cerebral palsy, neuromuscular disorders and autism, they walk on their toes a lot, says Stanley-White, and they may walk with their legs bent or crooked.
“If a horse isn’t sound,” she says, “a rider will never get the proper stimulation through the spine and the muscles to be able to sit upright, to hold a pen, to have purposeful play as a child should have.”
The horses must also be stoic in order to tolerate wheelchairs banging into them, crutches dropping, screaming children with autistic voices, balls bouncing off them, even hula hoops.
They also have to have what she calls a kind eye. “The horse has to have an innate spirit, and most horses do. Some of the most abused horses are really the kindest horses of all,” she says.
One of STEP’s oldest horses is 42 years old, but he’s still thriving because Stanley-White has spent more than 45 years of professional horsemanship to understand how to take care of older horses. “Instead of throwing them away, I can give them another life,” she says.
Stanley-White bought her farm to save it from being developed and to save the horses on it. “I knew this needed to be done,” she says. “This is my life’s mission.”
Her horses—and her riders—are pretty happy that she did.
Editor’s Note: This is the third and final part of Petful’s series on equine therapy. If you have not read Part 1 yet, please start there.