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Special Needs, Special Horses

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A growing number of individuals with special needs are discovering the benefits of therapies and activities involving horseback riding. Special Needs, Special Horses , by Naomi Scott, offers information about the amazing results possible with therapeutic riding, or hippotherapy. From recreational riding for individuals with disabilities, to the competitions some riders enter (and win), Scott describes the various techniques of the process and its benefits to the physically and mentally challenged. The book explores the roles of the instructors, physical therapists, volunteers, and the horses, and explains carriage driving, vaulting, and educational interactions with horses. Scott profiles individuals involved in the therapy, including clients whose special needs arose from intrauterine stroke, cerebral palsy, transverse myelitis, Parkinson’s disease, paralysis, sensory integration dysfunction, multiple sclerosis, shaken baby syndrome, sensory damage, stroke, seizures, infantile spasms, Down syndrome, and autism. Special Needs, Special Horses is an excellent guide for the families of the many who do--or could--enjoy improved lives from therapeutic riding. It will also appeal to practitioners of therapeutic riding as an overview of their profession.

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53 Chapters

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Chapter 1: Description


Chapter One


A fourteen-year-old with cerebral palsy, frail of limb but stout with courage, grips the surcingle handle tightly. His body sways slightly with each stride of his palomino mount as it is led around a large arena.

Another volunteer and I walk on either side, holding him firmly on the bareback pad, supporting his thighs, offering smiles and praise.

An instructor follows, closely observing and encouraging, “You’re doing great, Brandon. Try to relax. They won’t let you fall.”

Slowly his muscles, taut beneath my fingers, begin to soften. His fear of the unknown turns to excitement and he grins, then laughs out loud, again and again. He is riding a horse for the first time. To him it’s just fun. He doesn’t know it is going to spare him the ordeal of surgery.

A five-year-old autistic boy, who does not speak, and barely communicates, gazes vacantly into space as I lead his horse away from the mounting area. After a couple of laps, the child smiles, leans forward, reaches out, and taps his horse on the neck, his way of saying, “Let’s trot.” We pick up the pace, breeze flicks tousled curls from his forehead, and he laughs, his hand in the air. His instructor has worked for weeks to connect this gesture with trotting, which his smiles and body language show he loves to do.


Chapter 2: Benefits


Chapter Two


The benefits of equine assisted activities (EAA) or therapeutic riding, though numerous and varied, can be grouped into four categories: physical, psychological, functional (cognitive), and educational.


Because a horse’s gait closely emulates that of a human, horseback riding gently and rhythmically moves the rider’s body in a manner comparable to walking. We all know how important walking is; experts say it is the only exercise we need if it is done consistently.

The most measurable effects from the way a horse’s motion moves the body include: greater strength and agility, improved balance and posture, weight-bearing ability, improved circulation, respiration, and metabolism. No other modality mimics the walking gait of a human and stimulates virtually every movement system in the body.

Walking takes more than muscles. It takes balance, a delicate coordination of different parts of the body and brain. Riding a horse allows the brain to practice correct walking movement patterns, giving not only the muscles an opportunity to experience the motion, but also the vestibular system, particularly for a person who moves very little.


Chapter 3: Origin and History


Chapter Three

Origin and History

Therapeutic horseback riding as a structured, organized, controlled modality, is relatively recent on this continent. NARHA is only a little over thirty years old. Activities for the challenged, involving horses in ways other than riding, are gaining popularity, including mental health treatments, carriage driving and vaulting. To encompass these programs,

NARHA favors the umbrella term, equine assisted activities, in place of the exclusive designation of therapeutic riding.

The equine role in therapy is not new. I have heard that as far back as World War I, German veterans rode horseback as part of their rehabilitation.1 Helga Vogel, a pioneer of therapeutic riding in Germany, has personal knowledge of this happening after World War II.2 References to riding as therapy, back in ancient times, have been reported.

One courageous horsewoman, Liz Hartel of Denmark, is generally credited with the origin of modern therapeutic riding. Polio, contracted in 1943, left her with serious muscle deterioration, and her doctor believed she would never ride again. In 1951 she met a Norwegian physical therapist who began working with her, and the following year she entered Grand Pris Dressage at the Helsinki Olympics. Hartel won the Silver


Chapter 4: Instructors and Therapists


Chapter Four

Instructors and Therapists—

The people who make it work

Imagine how scary it might be for a young rider, way up there on that huge horse, higher off the ground than he’s ever sat before, feeling motion he has never known before. Then think how the parents feel.

It must be traumatic for them to see their precious young guy or gal, of whom they are so protective, helped onto this great animal and led away, perhaps out of their sight.

From what I have observed, these riders are in the best of care.

I have personally worked with more than a dozen instructors or therapists and they are without a doubt the most capable, caring, giving, dedicated group of people I’ve ever known.

Watching instructors from various NARHA centers readying their charges to compete at Special Olympics one day, these words came to mind—they are a breed apart. While so many of us are busy “going for the gold” for ourselves, these people are helping others “go for it.” They are very protective of their riders, who respond to them with obvious affection. They may not get rich in this field. Their reward is the satisfaction of watching a child take a step, or speak for the first time; an adult walk without crutches; a grateful parent telling of new things a rider is accomplishing at home; the delight on a competitor’s face.


Chapter 5: Owners, Community, and Volunteers


Chapter Five

Owners, Community, and Volunteers

Instructors and therapists conduct the actual sessions but facilities, and a lot of support, are also necessary.

A good example of a NARHA center is Rocky Top Therapy Center, established in 1990 by Doug and Vivian Newton, at their Rocky Top

Ranch, Keller, Texas. The center has achieved NARHA premier accredited status, and has grown to annually serve two hundred physically, mentally, or emotionally challenged individuals.

“We struggled to get started,” Doug recalls. “Therapeutic riding was not widely known, to the disabled, or to the community at large, and there were few instructors in the country. We were busy getting educated on the process, giving speeches to anyone who would listen, raising the necessary dollars to make our programs possible, and improving our facilities to accommodate those with special needs. Now we are finding that keeping up with growth is an even greater challenge. Because of our successes, demands for expansion are ever increasing.”


Chapter 6: Horses


Chapter Six


They carried us into battle. They tilled our land. They transported us. Time and high tech marched on, and they were relegated largely to our entertainment. Now horses are again called on for a vital service—to help strengthen the frail of body, and inspire the frail of mind.

The young riders, however, think of the therapy horse more in terms of a big, soft neck to nuzzle, a velvety nose to rub, and a means of having fun. Well, not only the young riders.

More than 5,000 horses on this continent are entrusted with our fragile citizens, from two-year-olds to the geriatric.

The animals that transport such precious cargo, or stand patiently while novices rub them, or pick up their feet, obviously must have the temperament and training not to spook at an unexpected noise or movement, and to respond quickly to commands.

Therapy horses must be sound. Even a slight limp will cause an uneven gait, which can be detrimental in individual cases.

A selection of sizes and shapes is necessary to meet each client’s unique requirements. For example, a rider with tight muscles and tendons in his thighs and hips needs a mount with a narrow barrel, while someone with good flexibility will get more stretching from straddling a wider back.


Chapter 7: Procedures for Riding Sessions


Chapter Seven

Procedures for Riding Sessions


The best approach to initiating a riding program is to contact NARHA to locate the nearest center. Call the center and have a preliminary discussion with an instructor or therapist about the candidate’s history.1

NARHA’s “Precautions & Contraindications” delineate physical conditions which could possibly lead to adverse effects from riding. Guidelines set down specific safeguards to be followed, or stipulate if the candidate should not ride.2

Upon determination that guidelines are met, the new client or family member is advised to request a doctor’s release to ride, and, if hippotherapy is indicated, a prescription for physical, occupational, or speech therapy.3 There is possible insurance coverage, for which the individual company should be queried. Various grants, government and private, are offered. Information about availability, and qualification requirements, can be obtained from the center or NARHA.

The next step is to visit the center. The instructor or therapist gathers information about the client’s capabilities and limitations, utilizing questions and an examination based on knowledge of human anatomy, and determines which match of horse and equipment will provide the most benefit.


Chapter 8: Recreational Riding—with profile of Amy


Chapter Eight

Recreational Riding—with Profile of Amy

The objective of recreational riding is more toward enjoyment and social pleasure, plus learning horsemanship skills, while reaping physical and mental benefits from the horse’s motion. These riders often start with private lessons, then find it more fun to join a group where the members interact with each other.

The usual tack is a western or English saddle, although a bareback pad is occasionally used for simple vaulting type exercises. For beginning riders, reins are fastened directly onto the halter. This allows them to learn the gentle touch of reining without causing undue pressure on the horse’s mouth.

As the rider advances, his mount’s headgear consists of a bridle and bit, or hackamore, with rainbow reins attached. These reins have bilateral bands of color so the instructor can tell the rider where to hold them for a particular maneuver.

Even for advanced riders, the horse always wears a halter under the bridle. When exiting an enclosed area, such as going to and from an outdoor arena, a leader will have control with a rope snapped onto the halter. Leaving some slack in the rope allows the client to continue guiding his mount with the reins.


Chapter 9: Hippotherapy—with profile of Cory


Chapter Nine

Hippotherapy—with Profile of Cory

As stated earlier, Hippotherapy provides medical treatment, the objective being specifically the improvement of neuromotor function, with no riding skills taught. A session, always with only one client, requires a therapist (physical, occupational, speech pathologist, or assistant, who is also trained to administer hippotherapy), a leader, and one or two sidewalkers.

Support is given according to individual need, which may be minimal, or the maximum, where volunteers actually hold the rider upright, sometimes using a wide belt with handles.

The preferred tack is a bareback pad or anti-cast (wide, heavy leather surcingle, with a half-moon handle for the rider to hold) over a pad.

This helps the rider feel and absorb more warmth and motion from the horse than he would from a saddle of heavy leather. A saddle is used if additional support is needed, or for the client to progress to standing up in the stirrups.

Objects are sometimes utilized to facilitate stretching, better posture, etc. A rider holds a baton in various positions, such as behind his back or over his head; a child takes large rings from a sidewalker, held as directed by the therapist so the client must stretch sideways, backward or up to reach them.1


Chapter 10: Alternative Activities—Vaulting and Carriage Driving


Chapter Ten

Alternative Activities—

Vaulting and Carriage Driving

Vaulting has been referred to as ‘a dynamic approach to therapeutic riding’ by Gisela H. Rhodes, M.Ed., internationally acclaimed authority and instructor of traditional vaulting.

“What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘vaulting?’” Rhodes asked. “Perhaps you envision a horse wildly cantering in a circle, with children standing on the horse doing flips and other hair-raising stunts?

If so, then most likely you have never thought it could have any role in therapeutic riding. But therapeutic vaulting is a modification of traditional vaulting, and an exciting and growing trend at NARHA centers.”

Rhodes explains that basic vaulting positions are taught, as are exercises. “But many other aspects are added and subtracted, depending on the needs of the individual. The appeal of a therapeutic vaulting class is that it provides an environment where the vaulters can progress at their own speed, while still being part of a group working together. Instead of being competitive, the class is designed to encourage teamwork, to discover and practice new skills, and to have fun. In most cases, sidewalkers are not needed, and vaulters have the opportunity to enjoy the company of the horses, and concentrate on what they are doing without distractions from sidewalkers or a leader.”


Chapter 11: Competition


Chapter Eleven


The impetus for therapeutic horseback riding becoming the organized, worldwide activity we know today, literally originated in the show arena with the courageous lady, Liz Hartel of Denmark.1 Her wellpublicized triumph of overcoming impaired mobility from polio to win a Silver Medal in Grand Pris Dressage at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics is generally credited with calling attention to the rehabilitative merits of riding a horse. A fitting tribute to Hartel is the subsequent spread of therapy programs, and growing participation in competitive equine events by physically and mentally challenged riders.

Psychologically it is a wonderful thing, for those who cannot engage in other sports, to experience the exhilaration of competition. What a boost for the self-esteem, to go back to their school, work and families, and tell about something they can do that their able-bodied friends and relatives cannot do—ride horses, and win medals, belt buckles, trophies, and ribbons.

Opportunities are expanding throughout the continent, in shows held at public or private facilities, and at NARHA centers. Some public shows are exclusively for the challenged, while others are held in conjunction with events for the able-bodied. Most are open to riders in established programs which are affiliated with NARHA, and CanTRA.


Chapter 12: Private Riding Program—with profile of Erika


Chapter Twelve

Private Riding Program— with Profile of Erika

Riding a horse can be a gateway to relief of pain, strengthening of muscles, and heightened self-esteem. The warmth of the animal, the reassuring touch of sidewalkers, and soft words of encouragement from an instructor or therapist create a separate world having its own rules and standards of normalcy. In this world, the challenged find new hope and raised expectations.

Unfortunately, in many areas there is no accredited NARHA center within a manageable driving distance. This might lead to the temptation to try riding therapy for a loved one in an environment lacking professional expertise. This could be a good thing, but in certain situations, it could be dangerous.

High on the list of inherent pitfalls is the possibility that riding a horse might actually harm someone who has a fragile skeletal structure.

The NARHA guidelines (Precautions & Contraindications) delineate conditions which render it unsafe for a person to ride, even with the guidance of specialists.1


Chapter 13: Starting a New NARHA Center


Chapter Thirteen

Starting a New NARHA Center

Therapeutic horseback riding has enjoyed tremendous growth since the first program was established in North America in 1969. In just over three decades, the numbers jumped to more than 800 NARHA centers, serving more than 42,000 clients annually.1 With demand outgrowing supply, a lot of programs have a waiting list of up to a year and a half. In some situations, this could be partially remedied with more volunteers and more instructors. But too many areas have no center at all within reasonable driving distance. The number of centers may sound impressive, but when you factor in all fifty states and Canada, the centers are spread thin. Many are small facilities, which can accommodate only a few riders.

NARHA has stated, “There is a growing demand for therapeutic riding services. At many centers, individuals must be placed on a waiting list until space is available during a riding session.” NARHA offers educational and networking assistance for individuals interested in starting up a therapeutic riding center.2 For anyone desiring to start a new program, the first step would be to contact NARHA.


Chapter 14: Helping Troubled Youth


Chapter Fourteen

Helping Troubled Youth

Emotional distress can be devastating. It doesn’t show on the outside, except by a person’s actions, and is often misunderstood and discounted, the troubled person told to “just get over it.” Of course it’s not that easy, especially for children.

Rocky Top Therapy Center’s program, Right TRAIL™,1 begun in

1994, has helped children cope with emotional problems by teaching discipline, responsibility, team spirit, work skills, and patience, in a structured environment. It is a program for helping troubled, at risk, youth find the “right trail” to a better life.

The program operates in conjunction with the Keller, Texas, school district. School counselors assemble students, age nine to sixteen, with similar needs in areas such as self-esteem, behavior, academic performance, social skills, or coping with grief. Groups of six to ten girls or boys are bussed to the ranch after school during the twelve-week course.

Sessions are co-conducted by certified therapeutic riding instructors and a school counselor.


Chapter 15: Leah—Intrauterine Stroke


Chapter Fifteen

Leah—Intrauterine Stroke

“Chesto! Wheo Chesto?” The soft voice came from the direction of the arena entryway. I looked up to see a little girl with huge blue eyes and a sunny smile leaning on a tiny walker. “I wanna wide Chesto!” she said with a little more volume.

I finished saddling a big bay, breathing the earthy scents of horse and oiled leather, and stepped from the stall. I walked toward the client, passing a row of open pipe enclosures along the outside perimeter of the huge arena, in which horses stood picking at the remnants of their hay ration. Others were saddled and ready for their riders, or standing patiently while volunteers brushed them and cleaned their feet with a hoofpick.

Greeting Leah Epich and her mother, Susan Epich, I checked the helmet list to see which one she needed, and retrieved it from the cabinet.

Jessica Whaylen, former Rocky Top Therapy Center instructor, walked into the arena and I handed the helmet to her. Fastening it over

Leah’s bouncy red curls, she said, “Chester’s all saddled. He’s been sticking his head out of the stall looking for you.” The girl giggled at this disclosure.


Chapter 16: Brandon—Cerebral Palsy


Chapter Sixteen

Brandon—Cerebral Palsy

One day while I sat in the reception room to get a respite from the

Texas heat in the arena, the front door opened. A beautiful lady with dark curls and a ready smile entered, pushing a wheelchair in which sat a frail teenager with his arms around a little boy perched in his lap.

Instructor Tracy Winkley1 came in from her office, greeted them and introduced herself.

“I’m Melissa Turner,” the lady replied. “This is my son Brandon

Barnette and his little brother, Nathan.”

“Hi guys,” Tracy said as Nathan slid to the floor and joined his mother on the couch. “Do you think you’d like to ride a horse, Brandon?”

“Umm, yes,” Brandon said tentatively, his eyes wide as he glanced around at his mother and brother.

“How old are you?” Tracy asked.


“My, you’re a tall fellow for your age,” she said, kneeling in front of his chair. “Can you stand on your own?”

Brandon shook his head.

“Not without a lot of help,” Turner said.

“Okay, Brandon, let’s check you over so we can see which one of our horses will suit you best,” Tracy said. She gently tugged one leg to straighten it. “Tell me when you feel this.” She repeated the process with his other leg.


Chapter 17: Barbara—Transverse Myelitis


Chapter Seventeen

Barbara—Transverse Myelitis

One of the purposes of this book is to inspire people to “be the best that you can be,” to quote an old familiar phrase. Barbara Lamb is the epitome of this sentiment.

In high school, Barbara won awards for her art, helped kids as a volunteer through an organization called PALS, (Peer Assistant Leadership

Service), worked as an usher at the local major league baseball field, and typed sixty words per minute on her computer.

A typical teenager? Yes. Except for one thing. She has been paralyzed from the shoulders down since the age of two.

Barbara began a hippotherapy program when she was sixteen. At first, her sidewalkers supported her back with a hand behind each shoulder.

After several rides, she gradually began to sit up straight on her own, and we only steadied her with gentle pressure on her hipbones. If she leaned too far to one side, the therapist would ask the volunteer on the opposite side to press down on her hip, which would restore her balance.


Chapter 18: Larry—Parkinson’s Disease


Chapter Eighteen

Larry—Parkinson’s Disease

“I’m sleeping six and a half to seven hours straight now. Before I started riding, many nights I didn’t sleep more than two or three, because of back pain.” Larry Walls said this less than two months after he began hippotherapy.

Dr. Ronald Faries, D.C., remarked on Larry’s progress at this stage in the riding program: “His balance, strength, and stamina have increased tremendously. Many times he comes into the clinic without his walker.

Before he started riding, he didn’t have the ability to maintain upright posture.”1

Eight years earlier Larry was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. I had heard about his remarkable results, and asked to include his story in the book.

“Sure,” he said, slowly climbing the ramp to the mounting platform.

Two of Larry’s friends had told him about therapeutic riding and urged him to try it. One was volunteer Cecil Hill.

“Cecil kept talking about it, explaining some of the benefits people had experienced, and the procedure. But I was skeptical,” Larry said.


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