Therapeutic Horse Riding Choices
Clarice Gualtieri of Chalfont, PA, during a riding lesson at Special Equestrians in Warrington, PA. Leading is volunteer Angela DiPasquale. They are trotting, which stimulates large muscle groups and helps Clarice focus.
photos by Yvette Janvier
(Updated Nov. 2018)
On any Saturday afternoon at centers around the Delaware Valley and the nation, children with disabilities are learning to ride a horse. Therapeutic horseback riding is an enjoyable, educational activity that develops skills and builds friendships.
Therapeutic riding programs vary in their programs, riding styles and even the size of their horses. Riders can be found in an indoor ring or out on the trail. Some children take lessons alone, others in pairs or larger groups.
In most area programs, an instructor closely accompanies beginners and at least one volunteer “sidewalker” walks or jogs alongside the horse and supports the rider. More experienced students can trot and canter on their own. Programs also range in price, from free of charge to $50 or more per lesson.
At most riding centers, time in the saddle is just the beginning. Students participate in a variety of equine activities, such as grooming, feeding,attaching the lead rope and walking the horse. In addition to weekly instruction, many stables offer special events, as well as specialty and summer camp programs. Here are examples of the varied horse therapy activities
offered by area riding centers.
A Horse for Every Rider
In addition to therapeutic horseback riding, Special Equestrians in Warrington, PA, offers hippotherapy, a treatment that uses activities on the horse to help children develop functional skills. With sessions led by an occupational or physical therapist, hippotherapy is well-suited for younger riders and children with significant needs. These and other equine activities run throughout the week at this state-of the-art facility.
Among the innovative programs at Special Equestrians is REINS (Riders Excelling In New Skills), “a small, multi-sensory group program for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). The curriculum includes both mounted and unmounted components,” says program director Anne Reynolds. Participants ride, but they also practice handwriting and play communication games. Occupational therapists and riding instructors work together with individuals and in group sessions.
At the Kaleidoscope Therapeutic Riding Program in Mount Laurel, NJ, founder Kelly Adams uses kid-friendly activities to help riders explore their potential. Theme days, such as Mardi Gras and Welcome to Spring, come complete with costumes. Horsey games, such as relay races with giant spoons and tic-tac-toe with bean bags, add to the fun.
These themes and activities are the therapy. They create a warm environment and provide a fun, non-competitive way for children to interact with and learn from each other. According to Adams, “In this playful kind of setting, everyone excels.” While things can get silly, learning to ride is the goal. Usually, two students, preferably at different levels, take 30-minute lessons together.
CHASE (Challenged Horsemen and Small Equines) Center founder Sherry Bohl offers therapeutic riding on miniature horses (34 to 38 inches tall) at DREAM Park, a recreation complex in Logan Township, NJ. “Lower to the ground and not as intimidating, smaller horses are perfect for younger children,” says Bohl. CHASE welcomes riders as young as 2 to 3 years of age.
With the smallest students in mind, the CHASE Center sports a tiny saddle and three miniature mounts, Diva, Diamond, and Miss Special. Currently, lessons are offered one day a week.
Therapeutic horseback riding is not just about the riders. The generosity of volunteers, usually teenagers from the local community, sustains day-to-day operations at many centers. From cleaning stalls to playing with siblings to walking alongside the horse and rider during lessons, volunteers make a crucial difference.
Although it is not for everyone, volunteer work at riding centers can be amazing and transformative. A phone call to your teen’s center of choice is enough to start the volunteer process.
Research on Riding
Programs have different ways to collect data on students and closely monitor their progress. One center, Quest Therapeutic Services in West Chester, PA, has a unique equine research project.
Through a grant from Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism advocacy organization, professionals at Quest will launch, run, and evaluate an Equestrian Therapeutic Interactive Vaulting program for children with autism spectrum disorders.
Both an art and a sport, vaulting is the performance of different movements on the back of a horse. The benefits associated with this novel physical and educational experience include increased self-confidence and improved social and motor skills for children.
Sharon A. Hollander, PsyD works with children with autism spectrum disorders at Children’s Specialized Hospital in Toms River, NJ.
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Therapeutic Riding Centers
Carousel Farm Riding Stable / Carousel Park & Equestrian Center
The Center for Therapeutic &
Sweet Meadow Stable
Whispering Meadows Equestrian Center
CHASE: Challenged Horsemen
Compassionate Friends TRC
Labrador Hill Farm & Studio
Riding High Farm
All Riders Up
Flying High Equestrian Therapy, Inc.
Heaven's Gate Farm, LLC
Ivy Hill Therapeutic Equestrian Center
Pegasus Riding Academy
Quest Therapeutic Services, Inc.
Rainbow Ridge Farm
Sebastian Riding Associates
Special Equestrians, Inc.
Thorncroft Therapeutic Horsebackriding, Inc.
Black Horse Stables