Therapeutic Horseback Riding

Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, People
on September 24, 2000

Two years ago police found Tommy, then a pint-sized 7-year-old, wandering the streets of Providence, R.I., shoeless and unable to speak. Tommy was one of the worst cases of neglect they’d seen, police told social workers at the local children’s hospital that assumed his care.

Today, Tommy is well cared for and learning to talk. One of his words is “Mosa,” the name of the horse that provided a bridge from his past life to a more promising future. Tommy is one of hundreds of clients who come to the mostly volunteer-run Greenlock Therapeutic Riding Center in Rehoboth, Mass., to draw upon the healing power of horses.

“When he first came, he was terrified of the horses,” says Greenlock instructor Ginny Filuminia. “After a while, we had to give him extra time at the end of a lesson so he could hug Mosa.”

Hugging a horse can be powerful medicine. The rewards that come from the bond between horse and rider have been known for centuries, but it was a stunning Olympic performance by polio victim Liz Hartel in 1952 that opened eyes to the benefits of pairing the disabled with horses. Today, the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) has nearly 600 member riding centers in 48 U.S. states and Canada.

The term “therapeutic riding” encompasses all aspects of riding for the disabled. Hippotherapy, one facet of therapeutic riding, uses the horse’s natural gaits to elicit a response in the rider’s body as a form of treatment. Many riders suffer from hypotonia, a lack of muscle tone that keeps them from sitting up. Lying atop the rolling motion of a horse helps develop tone. Riders who lack speech because of neurological or developmental disorders are frequently stimulated by the riding experience to find some way of communicating.

Prospective riders first must be evaluated to determine the best approach for them. “We want to know what the developmental age of a child is and if they’ll need a therapist,” says Liz Baker, a therapist, NARHA board member, and vice president of the American Hippotherapy Association.

“We also want to know how mobile they are; can they sit independently, take direction?”

Riders in the hippotherapy program work with physical and speech therapists who use a regimen of exercises to strengthen muscles and elicit verbal responses. By contrast, riders in the therapeutic program actually learn the rudiments of riding—and don’t require a therapist. Frequently, the skills and self-confidence they achieve allow them to progress to mainstream riding programs.

Once a week for the last two years, Paige, 7, has traveled to Greenlock’s long, pasture-lined driveway to her session, which begins in the riding ring and progresses to the trails of the nearby woods. Born with Down syndrome, Paige’s joints were overly flexible, her muscles weak, and her balance unsteady. Prodded by therapists to shift her position from forward to sideways, then to backward in the saddle—even to stand on the horse’s back—Paige’s muscles and joints strengthened and her balance improved.

“She now hops on one foot and plays jump rope,” says Paige’s mother, Karen Bouchard. “She couldn’t do that before.”

Equally important has been the growing confidence Paige shows around horses. Initially, she was fearful of the larger horses. “If we tried to put her up on one, she’d bail out,” chuckles Greenlock Director Edith Wislocki. Today, Paige routinely hops on Greenlock’s tallest mounts.

While many horses are offered to the program as donations, only a handful make the cut. Disposition and gait are critical.

The distinctive rolling gaits of Odin, the youngest of Greenlock’s mounts, have provided Matt Blanchette, 9, a way to strengthen leg and trunk muscles weakened by cerebral palsy. Now he’s eager for his next challenge—learning to ride the horse without being led. How does he feel about his accomplishment?

“I’m proud,” he says. “I’m ready to run.”

And someday maybe soar.