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Riding for Life: horse therapy

Posted on 10 March 2009


By Darren Guyaz


Eleven-year old Gabby enters Danmore Stables in Lolo with her walker, an unstoppable smile flowing from cheek to cheek. 

"Where's Maggie?" she says, looking toward the stalls for her usual horse, a gray mustang she has formed a close relationship with. Another Saturday morning has arrived and despite the fact that it's the only day Gabby gets to sleep in, she's hardly missed a single riding lesson within the past year. 

With the assistance of Corrie Schilling, program director at Danmore Stables, Gabby moves onto the mounting ramp, and climbs aboard her horse with the help of two volunteers.

Schilling knows the routine. She's been encouraging and assisting kids with disabilities for more than seven years.

Gabby's mother, Deanna Broere, says the riding has helped her daughter "tremendously with her balance and her torso." She couldn't walk the next day after the first lesson, but she loves it."  Gabby isn't new to therapeutic riding either. She's been riding once a week at Danmore Stables for nearly a year. "Maggie listens to my legs better because I've ridden her before," exclaims Gabby. 

Clients find the more they ride the same horse, the closer connection they develop, allowing them to have more control of their riding. "She develops a bond with the horse and builds a partnership with it," smiles Schilling. "She can depend on the horse for things and the horse can depend on her, allowing her to guide a 1,000-pound animal. It's giving her control over her own life."

Organized therapeutic riding is popular in Montana and dates back to the 1950s when a Danish woman, Liz Hartwell, rehabilitated herself from wheelchair to horseback.  She went on to win a silver medal in dressage at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. Equine professionals took notice and centers for therapeutic riding quickly sprang up across Europe, soon reaching North America. 

The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association was established in 1969.  This organization recognized a need for a structured organization as a forum for exchanging ideas, creating guidelines and supporting the development of new therapeutic riding centers. 

    There are more than 570 NARHA centers in North America, 177 of which are Premier Accredited. To date, Montana has seven therapeutic riding centers, three of which are Premier Accredited. One is in Lolo, another in Bozeman and the third in Billings. For this accreditation, stables and instructors must meet more than 60 standards created by NARHA, involving aspects as diverse as risk management, vaulting, horse care and training, volunteer services, and facility maintenance. The primary concern for these people with disabilities is safety. National standards provide centers with guidelines that ensure a safe, enjoyable experience, a place where participants feel comfortable riding. 

This care and attention are evident at Danmore Stables. Horses are groomed and well-trained; the facility is well-organized and welcoming, and staff and volunteers are focused, knowledgeable, and passionate about what they do.

Therapeutic riding teaches adults and children how to handle a horse and relate riding to daily living activities. "It serves individuals that couldn't be served in a regular riding session," states Cheryl Christmen, director of the Bozeman center.  People with a wide variety of disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy to autism, multiple sclerosis to quadriplegia, participate in therapeutic riding.

Hippotherapy, another form of riding therapy, involves an occupational or physical therapist as prescribed by a doctor and works one on one with the client. This type of therapy, literally meaning "treatment with the help of a horse," doesn't teach the client specifically how to ride, but works with the individual and the horse to achieve similar outcomes as traditional therapy would, such as muscle strengthening or hand-eye coordination. Many centers offer hippotherapy in addition to therapeutic riding, frequently contracting out licensed and fully trained hippotherapists. 

Both forms of therapy have profound impacts on the participants. Gabby smiled coyly after dismounting Maggie and said, "It's stretched me out right in my hips and it's helped my walking big time." 

 "She's come so far," her mother adds. "It makes her feel like she's really accomplished something, like other kids can do."


Tyson, brown hair protruding from the edges of his riding helmet has just finished with his lesson. "He doesn't want to leave," says Joe Gentri, father of six-year old Tyson, who has cerebral palsy. "This is one more hurdle he overcomes," Gentri said. "He looks at it as a challenge. He's not even aware that he's working as hard as he is." Tyson walks over to us, a little wobbly and fatigued, smiling enthusiastically. "I want my land legs back!"  

While behavioral changes and a feeling of well being arise from therapeutic riding, physical gains are particularly noticeable. Many newcomers to this form of therapy have difficulty walking, and concurrently struggle in areas such as balance, strength and mobility. Riding a horse mimics the rhythm and movement of the human gait, which progressively strengthens their legs, trunk and upper body. The riding stimulates joints and muscles. Traditional exercise equipment, limited to single-muscle groups, cannot produce these types of full body movements in a natural, rhythmic manner that a horse can provide.

 Confidence and self-esteem grow tremendously. "One student spoke her first word at seven years of age and it was her horse's name," Schilling said.  Guiding and riding an animal so mighty is empowering, especially for youth. A child in a wheelchair is suddenly given a new perspective, physically higher than adults or peers, astride an animal much larger than their own body. A child with emotional and mental disabilities forms a unique relationship with the animal, an unconditional bond that transcends prior human-to-human interactions. The excitement surrounding the experience is unavoidable. "I've literally had kids bouncing in their wheelchairs when they pull into the parking lot because they know where they are," says Christmen.

Riding sessions also provide the participant with valuable life skills. Grooming and caring for horses teach the children how to take care of themselves. "I've learned to groom," says Gabby. "Though the hard part is to get all the mud out and you have to get under the belly of the horse to do that." 

Counting, memory games, color recognition and new vocabulary are intertwined in the lesson, giving students practical skills to apply to life at school and home. Sequencing, motor planning development and body awareness exercises are incorporated as well, providing additional physical training that assists with agility and coordination. "They're learning things they might normally learn in a classroom setting, but they're having much more fun riding a horse," says Christmen.

    To accommodate the number of riders in each of the three programs - more than 150 per week combined - hundreds of volunteers help out. Under the guidance of the program director or assistant director, they help the children with saddling the horse, climbing aboard the horse, leading and grooming the horses after the lessons.

After information from a physical or occupational therapist and a doctor  have been received, the participant is assessed on the ground. The instructor gauges balance, posture and range of motion of the joints in either a sitting or standing position, as well as other key indicators such as sensory issues and overall cognitive knowledge. 

A riding test follows, evaluating responses like fear level, body positioning, hand-eye coordination, whether the child touches the horse, and how tight their muscles are with regards to the size of the horse. 

At many centers, like Danmore Stables, the first few lessons focus on riding with a vaulting pad to measure posture and balance, and to begin engaging muscles in the trunk and pelvis. If balance, strength, and coordination are sufficient, the child is transferred to a traditional saddle and learns to guide the horse, standing in the stirrups, trotting, and possibly progressing on toward vaulting or cantering, and graduating into a regular riding session. 

    As the horses are brushed down and returned to their stables, Gabby and Tyson are grinning, giggling, talking with the staff and volunteers assisting them. They are clearly happy. Schilling has led them in various directions and games over the past hour, and they have been learning, growing and changing with each minute. The hour has trotted quickly by and they have returned to their awaiting parents, ready to return home and rest, excited to return the following week. 

Gabby puts on her coat as her mom brings her walker over to her. "I'm almost trotting by myself!" she tells me, her face beaming with enthusiasm. She - and thousands of other kids across the country - faces a mountain of challenges to overcome and she is doing it, step by step, on a  horse.  


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