Therapeutic Riding, A Welcome Change We All Needed

June 4, 2014

When my son, James, was born early at twenty-two weeks, we had one priority – bringing him home. Thanks to some phenomenal doctors, a lot of prayer, and him being an incredibly feisty little fighter, we were able to do just that. After more than five months in the NICU, we naively thought our biggest battles were behind us. The truth is they were  just beginning.

A couple of weeks after bringing James home he was referred to our local Early Intervention program and began therapy. Therapy has been one of our most unanticipated struggles over the past three years. With a background in education and early intervention, I knew the importance of those first few years in his development. We needed to get at everything we could early and hard, and we did just that for many months. Then I hit a wall. Between therapy appointments and doctor appointments, our days were completely filled up. There was little time left for play dates with preemie friends or trips to the park. We struggled to decide what was more important – opportunities for natural development to occur in typical child activities, or days full of therapy. I still have guilt about some of the choice we made, but working through these struggles lead us down some unexpected paths with James that I’m incredibly thankful for. I’d like to share one of them with you in hopes it may meet a need you have to change things up. Not just for your child, but for you and your own sanity.

Therapeutic Riding

During his second riding session James carried a little duck with him for comfort. He has since learned to hold on while riding, and has gained enough confidence to leave the little duck in the stable.

I first heard about therapeutic riding several years ago. I read about it again as I researched ‘effective therapy’ in hopes of finding something new for James. Something we were missing. Something that was really going to make a difference. It sounded fabulous, and expensive and out of reach for the single-income-family we had become. But I knew I had to find a way to make this happen as I read the long list of benefits, explained best by Trinity Equestrian:

It’s about neurology, bio-physics, and how our brain is constantly communicating with our body. The brain is always assessing its surroundings, making adjustments, and compensating. Sometimes through injury or illness, these assessment and compensation pathways are impaired or changed and don’t work right — creating a disability.

These pathways need to be strengthened and rehabilitated. A horse has a very unique walking gait with movement that closely resembles human movement. When a person with disabilities rides a horse, the movement, motion, and rhythm of a horse’s walk is therapy for the damaged pathways, and the body begins to respond. It starts by relaxing and strengthening the muscles and improving balance and coordination. Then it begins working on the spirit and attitude. Riders begin to have a sense of empowerment, self-confidence, and a renewed sense of ability and hope! Their view of themselves changes — that’s life changing.

To my surprise, the cost of therapeutic riding is very reasonable, especially when compared to the cost of other therapies. Many riding programs have financial assistance available, sometimes full scholarships. Ours said they would never turn anyone away for lack of ability to pay. We have encountered some of the kindest, most sincere people we’ve ever met. They have a genuine concern for my son, and a genuine desire to help him make progress.

To be clear, there are two types of riding therapy: therapeutic riding  and hippotherapy. James is doing therapeutic riding. PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) defines therapeutic riding as “an equine-assisted activity for the purpose of contributing positively to the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of individuals with special needs.”  Typically children have to be 3, sometimes 4, to participate in therapeutic riding. James is learning actual riding techniques, and experiences the many body-benefits of riding a horse. 

The American Hippotherapy Association defines hippotherapy as “a physical, occupational, or speech & language therapy treatment strategy that utilizes equine movement.” In hippotherapy, the horse influences the client rather than the client controlling the horse. Typically children have to be two, but there may be some exceptions.

Therapeutic Riding

James’ posture improves each week. He is gaining strength in his core muscles and learning to keep his balance in the saddle.

James has had several sessions now. It’s still early in his riding experience, but we’re blown away by the changes we’ve seen. We’ve never heard so much jibber-jabber from him. He made his first independent verbal request a couple of weeks after beginning his riding program. He is repeating two (sometimes three) word phrases now. Coincidence? Possibly, but the growth in his speech since beginning therapeutic riding is truly astounding. He already shows more confidence on Promise. James cried on and off throughout his first session, gagged some and seemed quite anxious at his second session, never looked back at his third. He is learning to correct himself in the saddle – building upper body strength and learning to use commands to make Promise walk and stop. He has mastered the gestures for movement, now they are working on the words to go with them. All of this in just a few weeks.

Sometimes when we hit a wall we have to trudge through, and sometimes we have to do an about-face and look in a different direction. A change of scenery, a change of pace, getting outside and into nature, can all make a world of difference for us and our children. Watching James ride has been an incredible experience for me, too. To see his independence emerge, watch him gain confidence in a new situation, to witness him ‘handle’ this, it brings me to tears. Seeing his progress gives me that nudge to keep going. It’s all worth it. Steps are small and progress can be slow. Sometimes we need to change our perspective and look beyond the typical to find answers for our anything-but-typical kiddos.