I used to work at a place called CTRC, otherwise known as Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center. In this place, people with all different types of disabilities, mental or physical, could use an alternate form of therapy with horses. In the physical aspect, the movement of the horse is beneficial to the hips, spine, upper body, and legs. In the mental aspect, working with horses can stimulate different parts of the brain using the interaction with the horse.
The idea of using horses for therapy came from ancient greece, used for people who had an incurable illness. The equine therapy we see today was developed in the 1960’s in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. In the 1980’s equine therapy made its way to Canada and the United States.
I met a wonderful kid named Jack in the beginning of the riding season, at CTRC. He had some kind of connective tissue disease, where his healthy tissue was turning into scar tissue. So his therapeutic horseback riding was purely physical, not mental. There were many different kinds of disabilities at CTRC some kids were mentally disabled, physically disabled, or even both. Unfortunately, not everyone that worked with Jack realized that his disabilities were just physical. I think it is because he acts childish for being a 13 year old. He was completely wheelchair bound and had a beautiful golden retriever as his service dog. His family was always supportive and did their best to make him comfortable. His family even got him an awesome wheelchair that could maneuver to make it look as if he was standing.
A study called Exercise Interventions Improve Postural Control in Children With Cerebral Palsy: A Systematic Review “There is some evidence that hippotherapy can help improve the posture control of children with cerebral palsy, although the use of mechanical hippotherapy simulators produced no clear evidence of benefit.” However based on the reactions of the kids I’ve seen, equine therapy does improve physical and mental health.
Petey is a 4 year old paint/quarter horse mix gelding. When he was roughly a year old, my riding instructor, Roni, took him in from the ranch he was born at and started to ground break him. Groundbreaking is where you take an untrained horse, baby or adult, and teach them to be handled by humans. This can include leading the horse, grooming, and getting a saddle on the horse.
Therapy horses come from a broad spectrum of backgrounds. At CTRC they had a retired police horse named Morgan. Morgan was a good pick for a therapy horse because he could deal with stressful situations, and he was a slower horse due to being older. Then CTRC had a Tennessee Walker donated to them. This horse was good for being a therapy horse because he had a way of walking due to his breed that made him glide and have less of a bounce when he would trot. This was particularly good for the students who had problems with being jolted around by chunkier horses.
Most of the time horses are trained specifically for therapy. The trainer usually chooses a breed of horse that they find to be calm, gentle, even tempered, good with saddle and ground training. Most of the time a trainer will choose a gelding, which is a castrated boy horse. A mare, a female horse, can be temperamental during the time of the month that they are in heat. Stallions can be aggressive and try to take control of every situation that they are in, given their hormone driven personality.
This horse, Petey, reminds me of the therapy horses that we use at CTRC because he is calm, level headed, intuitive, and has the capacity to learn new things. When he was just a baby, my instructor was out of town and I was scooping poop in the paddock. Each time I would take a step forward, Petey would too. My mother has said, “I have never seen a horse act like a puppy when interacting with a person.”
I was done volunteering for the day, and when I came out of the tack room, Jack was still there. This confused me until I saw a huge red velvet cupcake with a note. I was pleasantly surprised considering Jack even remembered that I liked red velvet cake. I sat down at the table with Jack and picked up the card. It read, “Dear Chloe, Thank you for being my sidewalker, it has been an awesome session working with you. You are the one person who has made riding fun for me again. Love, Jack.” I teared up a bit and leaned over to Jack to give him a hug. He hugged me back with as much strength as he could muster given his condition.
A sidewalker is a person who walks alongside the horse during the therapy session to make sure the student is paying attention, doing their work, and to make sure the student does not fall off. That was my job every tuesday with Jack.
I got to know Jack pretty well. He loved Star Wars, Legos, and his friends at his middle school. He was a happy kid given his condition. I had realized at an early point in my sidewalking with Jack that he was a spunky kid with one disability, connective tissue disease. I did my best to challenge him mentally because he had no mental health problems. I would continuously talk with him about the class, his life, and on very rare occasions, his condition. I had the job of asking him questions about grooming tools and what his horse was doing.
I specifically recall one time that someone talked down to him as if he were autistic or something, and he clearly said to that other sidewalker, “I can understand you perfectly, I just choose not to listen to you,” then he looked back at me and smiled, continuing our conversation about the class. Jack always managed to make me smile even if I was having a bad day.
When I read Jack’s note, I wanted to cry because I was so touched. It made me realize that being kind and not assuming things about people is extremely important because you never know how it might make someone feel. Thanks to Jack, I now approach every new person with an open mind and a blank slate. It only seems fair to give someone their best chance with a first impression.
Certified Therapy Horse Association says, “Equine Counseling has its own guidelines, but CTHA certifies the therapy horse. In fact, CTHA helps owners and organizations with implementing and utilizing a set of standards through thorough documentation that protects the professionalism and credibility of these necessary programs. CTHA recognizes the third partner in equine counseling, the horse. This horse is a professional who works directly with people of all ages to promote growth in areas such as healthy risk taking and self-esteem strategies.”