Horsing around

By Kerry Houlding

Are you curious about therapeutic riding? Have you ever wondered whether your child might benefit from being around horses? Has your child shown an interest in them? Does your daughter excitedly point at horses grazing in the field as you drive by? Does your son gaze intently when he sees a picture of a majestic black mare in his library book? If you’re nodding “yes” then therapeutic riding might be an activity you could explore further with your child.

“Therapeutic riding” is a term used to describe all horse-related activities for adults and children with disabilities. The participant can be either mounted or unmounted, and a session can be held indoors or out. The consistent element in any therapy session is the horse, which is always a partner in helping children reach their therapeutic goals.

Some of the proven benefits of therapeutic riding include:
• developing mobility, balance and coordination
• improving muscle tone and strength
• increasing concentration and improving learning skills
• offering a challenging recreational activity
• fostering independence, integration and a sense of achievement
• developing self-confidence and motivation

In theory and practice, therapeutic riding is a truly holistic activity. The benefits of therapeutic riding touch on a variety of different aspects of the rider’s development, including physical, social, psychological and cognitive elements. However, one of the rarely mentioned benefits of riding is joy. For many children, riding and being in the presence of horses is a joyful event.

The earthy smells of the stable, the warmth of the horse’s body when you stroke its hair, the sounds of horses whinnying across paddocks and the rhythmic movement of the horse’s body all create a full sensory experience. This type of experience is difficult to replicate in more traditional therapeutic environments, and may contribute to therapeutic riding’s effectiveness.

Taking the first step
If both you and your child are keen to try therapeutic riding then your first step is to find an accredited program close to home. The Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association (CanTRA) is the only governing body for therapeutic riding in Canada. It has more than 80 accredited equine centres across our country. The importance of taking lessons at an accredited centre cannot be understated. At an accredited centre, all the necessary safety standards will be in place, the instructors will be properly certified and the volunteers will be adequately trained. CanTRA centres follow specific protocols and procedures that have been developed to keep riders and their families safe.

Once you have found a centre (or two) close to your home, it’s time to phone and schedule an informal visit to the stable. Try to plan your visit when lessons are taking place. This way, you and your child can observe a lesson in progress and speak to other families about their experiences. Instructors and volunteers will be about the barn getting the horses ready, so you can ask them questions too. This will give you an insight as to whether this centre is the right one for you and your child.

If, after the first visit, you decide your child will benefit from a weekly riding session then you should schedule an assessment with a senior instructor. During the assessment, your child will be fitted with a helmet, and the mounting and dismounting procedures will be explained. In addition, the instructor will select the most appropriate saddle and equipment for your child, to keep both your child and the horse comfortable and safe. Last but not least, the instructor will decide which horse is best suited for your child. Suitability is based on the horse’s movement pattern, size and temperament in relation to your child.

Of course, as with many recreational activities, the signing up process requires medical forms to be filled out by a doctor and waivers to be signed by parents or guardians. Once these steps are complete, your daughter or son will be ready to begin their riding adventure.

I have just one caveat about the joyful benefits of therapeutic riding—they’re contagious. You may discover that the joy your child experiences from being with horses is not limited to the animals. The joy is contagious, and you may see it in the establishment’s volunteers, instructors and stable staff—and in yourself.

Kerry Houlding is an instructor at TEAD (The Equestrian Association for the Disabled) in Mount Hope, Ontario. She has her masters in applied disability studies with a concentration in behaviour science.