Sunday, April 17, 2011

For the Want of a Horse...

Animals have always been an important part of my life. Horses, especially, having been ‘horse crazy’ since I was a toddler. Consequently, I spent most of my life in or at the barn and more hours on horseback than on the ground, at least until the past few years.
Being both a klutz and a daredevil, I have had more than my fair share of injuries and surgeries, running the gamut from skull fractures, a coma, to multiple fractures in my back and a total knee replacement. No matter what the injury, or whatever warnings from the doctors ensued, I always went back to riding as soon as I possibly could. It was often difficult and sometimes painful at first, but the rewards were worth it. What I didn’t realize at the time is how many times I actually rehabilitated myself.

I spent over 30 years training show horses and giving riding instruction. Near the end of those 30 years, a friend brought a child with Downs Syndrome to visit. I led him around on a horse and he exhibited more pleasure and excitement than any of the kids I had ever worked with. I thought it sad that kids with special needs don’t get the opportunities to experience what other kids take for granted. Then another friend asked if she could bring a little girl with Cerebral Palsy over and if I would put her on a horse. Being totally unfamiliar with the nature of special needs, I began to worry something might go wrong. I had high anxiety about it and began to do some research. As fate would have it (that is, HE who is in charge of our fates), I found a series of articles on various handicaps on a N.A.R.H.A. website. I had never heard of NARHA before and I think it’s funny that it was the first site that came up. NARHA stands for North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. It is an entity based in Colorado, under which over 600 certified centers in the US and Canada work with special needs children and adults using the horse as a therapy platform.

The horse has a 3 dimensional gait, same as a human. The hips swing forward-back, up-down, and side to side as they walk. This movement cannot be duplicated in conventional therapy and the simple act of sitting on a moving animal strengthens and awakens the muscle, nerve, and skeletal structure of the human pelvis and in more than one case, has resulted in previously non-ambulatory people being able to walk. There are multiple ways to utilize the horse for maximum benefits for a myriad of issues. Fascinated by what I had read, I found a NARHA center an hour away and went to observe what they do. A short time later I volunteered and they encouraged me to go through Instructor Certification training and consider opening my own center.

At that time, NARHA was able to address some 66 different disabilities, among them CP, Autism and Spina Bifada. Many centers address mental and emotional disabilities as well. It was amazing to me to see the results.

All instructors must be NARHA trained and certified and medical professionals, such as Physical and Occupational Therapists and Psychiatrists are often available for consult and input. Riders have  volunteers who walk along on each side, to insure they remain seated and balanced and another leads the horse. Safety is always primary.

A little 4 year old girl who was severely affected with autism had spent her life non-communicative. She was very difficult to hang on to, or guide. There was a serious disconnect and it was impossible to get her attention. She just wanted to run, climb, move and seemed totally unaware of who or what was in her world. We got her mounted and I gave the horse leader some instructions, while I tried my best to get her to listen or look my way. Failing in the effort, I had them stop and gave some new directions. As always,as a cue to prepare horse, walkers and riders, I asked them to
“Walk On”

Again, no positive result from her, so I stopped them a second time, gave new directions and said

“Walk On”

A third time I had them stop and while I was giving instructions, the little girl began to rock back and forth and then loudly she proclaimed


I was surprised, as her mother had TOLD me she couldn’t speak. I looked across the arena as her mother rose to her feet, hanging onto the fence with tears streaming down her face. It was the first time she had heard her child’s voice.
Not only could she speak, but she could speak clearly. She, like many individuals with autism had a strong desire and need for movement, hence the frequent rocking and self stimulation one might observe. The horse was providing this motion. Her special needs teacher contacted and told me

“I have the know-how, you have the incentive. Let’s get together and teach her to talk”

Four months later, I was invited to watch this same little girl in speech therapy, identify flash cards of fruits, animals and colors and group them 100%.

An 11 yr old boy with moderate retardation was another client. His posture was typical of people with this diagnosis, stoop shouldered with eyes lowered. He took direction well and was able to ride an old mare of mine fairly independently, with just myself walking alongside as insurance. Being able to stop, turn and direct an 1100 lb. animal was a real coup for him. Several sessions into his riding, his mother told me his teacher had asked what they were doing differently.

“She said his posture has improved dramatically, which we of course have noticed, but now he is even participating in class and answering questions. His self esteem has sky rocketed!”

There are hours worth of personal stories I could relate to you, on how I saw this program miraculously change lives.

Riding strengthens muscles, improves coordination, improves posture, balance and breathing function, sharpens cognitive skills and promotes relationship. These are just a few of the benefits and only a couple of examples of the incredible differences equine therapy makes in the lives of these worthy but often forgotten and invisible people.

Maintaining a NARHA Center, like any non-profit organization, is costly. There is insurance, feed, veterinary needs, tack and special equipment, props and other needs. These centers are driven and exist mainly due to strong volunteer forces.

If you have a gift or passion, it has an outlet here. If you love to cook, cater, or entertain, help throw a fundraiser. If you love animals, volunteer to lead, walk alongside,or care for one of the specially trained horses (more often than not these are retired horses who have been given a second chance at life and service). If you are skilled at writing, or book keeping, volunteer to help in the office. If you are great with people skills, how about being an outreach person and managing volunteers? If you love children, you will REALLY love THESE children. They have much to teach you about overcoming challenges and how to grasp pure joy in the moment. Perhaps you can babysit siblings while the students ride, or set up a bible study for parents who, due to the nature of their child's disability, are unable to attend church or social events themselves.

If you are the parent of a special needs child, or caregiver of an adult, most State Regional centers cover your costs of this therapy.

NO matter what your abilities are there is a need for you. I recommend you look up and find the center nearest you. You won’t regret it!


  1. As the sister to a 6 year old little boy with Down Syndrome, thank you for this post. We have a lot of animals here on our ranch, and he interacts with them, helps a lot, and it has helped his developmental skills and everything in his life greatly. Thank you!

  2. What loving and guileless people they are. It was such a privilege to get to know those I met and worked with!

  3. Annie from IllinoisApril 21, 2011 at 9:21 PM

    Wow! I SO love horses, & I have been an aide at a school for autistic children. This post may be what I needed to volunteer at a local stable that does theraputic horseback riding.
    Thank you & God bless you!