Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Horse Therapy for Kids


Today I have a special guest post from a friend of mine who, just like many of you is raising a twice exceptional child with a mood disorder. Through her journey she has discovered the benefits of horse therapy and has gone a step further in becoming a riding instructor herself. Enjoy her story and if you too have experienced the benefits of horse therapy, please share in the comment section below!

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My name is Heather, and I started volunteering at a PATH therapeutic riding center in 2012. I am now currently an Instructor in Training going through the certification process to become a Therapeutic Riding Instructor. I volunteer and do my student teaching at R.O.C.K. I grew up riding, training, and showing horses; and having a practical application for my horse skills is very rewarding. I turned to therapeutic horseback riding because I too have lived with the frustrations that Mama Bear describes.

My son is 14 and has a bipolar diagnosis (after collecting many others including ADHD, ODD, and possible Autism.) He is also 2e (twice exceptional) having both the bipolar diagnosis and is identified as intellectually gifted. Medication has made a world of difference for him. My father-in-law is 72 and lives with our family. He also carries a bipolar diagnosis that came late in life amid many other consequences of untreated mania. Again, medication allows him to peacefully enjoy his retirement. My husband recently sought out treatment for anxiety. So far the only thing my daughter has to cope with is being intellectually gifted, which means frequently being bored in school (and being a pre-teen). But I love having a wild and creative family.

Just from giving my own children rides on my horse, I noticed that the horse paid attention and was more easy going for the smaller less experienced riders. Horses are very sensitive and this makes them very good as therapists. Though not every horse can become a therapy horse. It takes a very special sort of horse to be calm enough and at the same time sensitive.


Meet Dude. Dude is 27 years old, which is old for a horse (he’d be in his late 80s as a human), and yet he is eager to work with the clients who come to see him at the Ride On Center for Kids in Georgetown, TX. Dude works with young kids on up to Veterans with physical and/or mental-emotional disabilities. Don’t let the word “Kids” fool you in R.O.C.K.’s name they have clients in their 80s as well. Dude is one of about 20 horses at R.O.C.K., and among thousands worldwide, who work as therapists. As a physical therapist the movement of Dude’s back acts just like walking does on the human pelvis. Horseback riding strengthens core muscles, and prepares the spine for the weight bearing of walking. But even more importantly, the movement of Dude’s back is soothing: it calms emotions and improves focus.

Where horses like Dude really shine is improving social relationships. Horses are naturally social creatures and they seek out friendships with humans as well as other horses (dogs, goats and other animals too).  But the secret to a friendship with a horse is they can’t speak, so everything they say is non-verbal. This makes them excellent at reading body language, deciphering moods, and providing feedback. They can be a touchstone for someone who is non-verbal themselves, and frequently therapeutic horseback riding has given non-verbal children words. But they are also great teachers for people who struggle with reading non-verbal cues and interpreting social situations, because horses don’t care if you are awkward by human standards, and will listen patiently to a non-stop monologue about any subject. What horses care about is being treated with kindness. They instantly react to aggression, fear, and anger. Clients learn fairly quickly that horses will retreat unless riders learn to control those emotions.

The third factor to therapeutic riding is the support. There are a lot of people involved in it too—so a client is not just developing a relationship with the horse, but with the support team as well. Most therapeutic riding instructors are PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) certified. PATH certified centers must have at least one PATH certified instructor on site. The PATH certification process stresses safety, and knowledge about horses and disabilities. Along with the instructor each rider will have a horse handler, who can control the horse on an as needed basis. So the client doesn’t have to have to start therapeutic riding with any riding skill to get the benefits. Additionally there can be up to two side walkers. Side walkers walk beside the horse and assist the client in staying on the horse and staying on task. Horse handlers and side walkers are all volunteers and they get almost as much out of their work as the clients do.

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PATH International http://www.pathintl.org/ has a list of 
therapeutic riding centers in the US and world wide.

R.O.C.K. http://www.rockride.org/


6 comments:

  1. I love this! Horse therapy is something I strongly believe in. I used to volunteer for a local horse therapy program (they moved an hour away, so getting there was a problem, especially in winter) and it was amazing how the kids changed (and adults, too).

    I myself am a horseback rider, and find myself calm and safe on a horse. Horse therapy works, and is very rewarding for the volunteers and students.

    Props to Heather on her work with horse therapy. Horses have saved me, and I know others that feel the same way. I'm schizoaffective, bipolar type.

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    1. Thanks San! It is certainly wonderful to see all the happy faces at R.O.C.K. when I'm out there.

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  2. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us Heather, I would love to try this with my boys someday.

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    1. If you get a chance I think they would love it! (and I think the staff would love your boys too.)

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  3. nice, I became inspired by your story ..

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  4. Horse riding is fun but if you don't know how to control the horse then it may be dangerous. Does not matter how mighty you are but you can never control your horse. Don't allow the kids for riding if they are not well trained. It was nice knowing so much about horse therapy. Of course, it is helpful!

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