Healing With Horses: How Therapeutic Riding Changes Lives

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 is 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.

T.J. came to the therapeutic riding program at A Horse Connection in Rhinebeck, New York, 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.”

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

A Miracle of Movement

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, New York.

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.

“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,” she says, “learning how to open a gate with a latch or just hold the rope in 2 hands is profound.”

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Therapeutic riding uses equine-assisted activities to improve the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of people with disabilities. By: leecullivan

Autism Spectrum

People along the autism spectrum present a wide variety of issues for therapeutic horse riding instructors and volunteers — and even for the horses.

“The autistic person has an inability to directly communicate their needs and interact as you and I do,” says Stanley-White of STEP.

“They’re not able to organize their bodies. They are either over-stimulated or under-stimulated. The rhythmic movement of the horse stimulates the patterns in the brain and the body to help calm and teach appropriate movement.”

Autism spectrum disorder is a complex condition that affects brain development. Symptoms may include difficulty with social interaction, processing problems, communication difficulties, undesired repetitive behaviors and movement disorders.

“We have a very large percentage of clients who are somewhere on the autism spectrum,” says Fitzgerald.

“It can be very beneficial because they’re encouraged in class to communicate with one another and communicate with their volunteers.”

Katie Ucker with Lilly at the Special Olympics in Clinton Corners, NY. She rides Lilly weekly at Pegasus Farm in Brewster, NY.
Katie Ucker with Lilly at the Special Olympics in Clinton Corners, New York. She rides Lilly weekly at Pegasus Farm.

In some cases, a rider works with a team of 3 volunteers who walk alongside the horse and communicate with the rider throughout the class. In this way, they reinforce the instructor’s direction.

“There’s a lot of input going on,” says Fitzgerald.

Wygod, the Pegasus instructor, worked with a young client with autism who didn’t want to be there at first. “She wasn’t a fan of riding, of focusing and paying attention,” says Wygod. “She got very upset during her lesson. It was a challenge.”

Alissa would slump on the horse rather than sit up tall, says Wygod. She resisted working hard on her riding skills.

When she did try to make an effort, as soon as things got difficult, she’d get upset and give up. “In the beginning I didn’t know how to help her enjoy riding.” But Wygod stuck with her.

Today, Alissa is in one of the intermediate groups. She has great posture and position on the horse.

“Her behavior has changed so much,” says Wygod. “She’s very focused. She’s happy, and she loves seeing her horse. I’ve seen such an improvement in her and in her riding skills. She’s posting. She’s riding off-lead. She doesn’t need any side walkers. When we have a new horse come into the program, I trust her to ride it. She’s really come such a long way.”

KatieUckerRidingLilly2
Katie is “one of our most advanced riders, and she’s worked really hard at it,” says Emily Wygod, an instructor at Pegasus.

A Connection With Animals

As a child with autism, Katie Ucker had problems with muscle weakness and social interactions.

But, according to her mother, Susan Neithardt, “She’s always had a connection with animals.”

So when she heard about the therapeutic riding program at Pegasus, Neithardt decided to give it a try.

“Katie’s more receptive to animals than she is to people,” says Neithardt. “I’m happy, but sometimes I’m a little bit sad because she’ll spontaneously hug the horse. She’ll give me a hug if I ask her to, but she’s more in tune with the horse’s feelings.”

According to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), therapeutic riding uses equine-assisted activities to improve the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of people with disabilities. This includes issues with social interaction, peer relationships, behavior control, concentration, anxiety, depression, language development, self-esteem and more.

It’s hard work, but it’s also a whole lot of fun.

“Katie’s really in tune, and she’s very respectful of the horse and his emotions and how to communicate effectively with him,” says Wygod, one of Katie’s instructors and program coordinator at Pegasus. “She’s one of our most advanced riders, and she’s worked really hard at it. She has an unbelievable memory; if you tell her something about a horse, she’s going to remember it for a very long time.”

And although Katie had years of occupational therapy before she came to Pegasus, the program there gave her much more than a stronger body.

“It really helped Katie learn how to follow multi-step directions and use her own body for motor planning problems. Her body awareness improved, and she learned all about the animals too,” says Neithardt.

Katie used to ride a challenging horse named Goose, according to Wygod, and was among the only riders who could handle him. “Goose was nervous at times, and Katie knew just how to calm him down. She knew the things he didn’t like, and she knew how to get the right reaction out of him. I think he was a great stepping stone for her because Goose was pretty challenging.”

Katie learned how to be an independent rider on him, says Wygod. “He’s really stubborn, so she had to be able to communicate and work with him to get the results she wanted. Now I think I can put her on almost any horse and have a lot of confidence that she will figure out the right way to work with that horse.”

Katie also participated in Horses & Me, a program at Pegasus that teaches people about horses and how to take care of them.

Through activities like grooming, leading and lunging a horse, and learning about horse anatomy and first aid, Katie gained strength and coordination while working on her interactions with instructors and other participants.

At first, Katie needed 2 people called side walkers, who walk at each side of the horse, and a third person leading the horse.

Today, she’s an independent rider who recently won 2 gold medals for Independent Equitation and Independent Trail in the Special Olympics.

Bella uses the Making Music sensory station on our sensory trail
Bella uses the Making Music sensory station on the Pegasus Farm Sensory Trail.

Sensory Riding Trails

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 Wygod.

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.”

Charlie participates in our therapeutic riding program, and this photo was taken on Cowboy Day during our Summer Equine Experience camp.
Charlie participates in a therapeutic riding program. This photo was taken on Cowboy Day during the Summer Equine Experience camp at Pegasus.

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 Stanley-White.

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.

Therapeudic riding at Saratoga Therapeutic Equestrian Program (STEP).
Therapeudic riding at Saratoga Therapeutic Equestrian Program (STEP).

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.”

Karen Stanley-White
Karen Stanley-White

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 she did.

Jillian Blume

View posts by Jillian Blume
Jillian Blume is a New York City–based writer. Her feature articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers including New York Observer, Marie Claire and Self. Jillian received a master’s degree in creative writing from New York University, has taught writing and literature at the School of Visual Arts and is working on a novel. She passionately supports animal welfare and rescue.

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