Kids aren’t the only ones thrilled to work with horses—adults are benefitting, too.
Written by Natalie Miller-Moore
Humans have relied on horses throughout history—for carrying men into battle, pulling plows and racing after game on the hunt. But people are now relying on horses for a different kind of strength. Three local programs are using therapeutic horsemanship programs to help adults in creative ways, to gain tangible benefits like improved physical strength, and intangible ones, like increased confidence.
David Buckley, 43, is a great example. He’d been in the Army, serving in Iraq during Desert Storm, and came home with (then undiagnosed) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For years he struggled with survivor guilt and has tattoos covering his arms in memory of his fallen friends.
“It was catching up with me. I was losing jobs, I was angry and depressed. I drank too much and abused pills,” he says.
Two years ago, he was desperately searching for something to give him peace and discovered Lonesome Dove Equestrian Center in Powhatan, just outside of Richmond. He heard about the program through the Veteran’s Administration at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center. It’s worked wonders for him. “I wouldn’t be here. I would’ve given up. Lonesome Dove saved my life,” Buckley says.
“When I’m on a horse, I forget my PTSD. Unfortunately, I just can’t figure out how to stay on a horse 24/7,” he says wryly. “My hardest battle was when I got home, and me worrying about judgment from others.” Buckley shares a coin that he carries with him that says “PTSD—Not All Wounds Are Visible.”
Today, Buckley is a role model for other veterans and even competes in local
Clint Arrington, the founder of Lonesome Dove, works hard to keep the program free to veterans, and clearly feels a sense of community with them. He says that some can’t ride very long, but “once people get on a horse, they just want to keep going.”
Grenay Williams, a kinesiotherapist at McGuire Medical Center, sees the benefits of therapeutic horseback riding for her patients.
“They’ve got mobility goals to accomplish, but it also helps core strengthening and it’s a confidence builder,” she says. For veterans with physical issues, the horse can help them develop balance. That’s true for Teresa Tsu, 46, who had a stroke that affected her right side. Tsu says after just three sessions on the horse, she can see a difference in her body. “It moves muscles I don’t use normally move. It works all of it and I can’t favor a side,” she says.
The tangible benefits of therapeutic horseback riding are increased flexibility and range of motion. But many of the intangible ones are concepts like trust and control. Buckley, for example, says he finds peace on the back of a horse.
For other adults with disabilities, like Ivy Kennedy, 33, who rides at EQUI-KIDS Therapeutic Riding Program in Virginia Beach, horseback riding keeps them active.
“There are not a lot of opportunities to participate, so anything that pops up, I do it!” Kennedy says. As a disability rights advocate, she’s always looking for more ways to engage the world and Levi, a calm and steady quarter horse cross, helps her do that.
Kennedy deals with muscle tightness from her cerebral palsy, and she uses therapeutic horseback riding, in addition to aqua therapy, to help her often-contracted muscles.
“I get stretched out and normally wouldn’t get that range of motion,” she says. It also gets her out of her wheelchair, which sits empty on the ramp during horseback riding time. Besides physical and social benefits, Kennedy says there’s even more in
it for her.
“It calms me down inside my head. I think it’s good for anyone who wants to lower their anxiety. I think of it as therapy for my muscles and my mind,” she says.
As Kennedy rides, she is accompanied by two “sidewalkers,” people who spot riders, and they help her get the most of the experience by stopping occasionally to
stretch out her arms and massage her legs. After the lesson, Kennedy is sweaty but relaxed, and giddy, even, after her time with Levi.
EQUI-KIDS Executive Director Jill Haag says that even though the name of the center has the word “kids” in it, they serve adults as well. In fact, an affiliate program at the same stable called “EQUI-VETS” serves the military veteran population.
Haag says that she often sees therapeutic horseback riding help adults like Kennedy, but also those with cognitive, social and emotional problems.
“We’ve seen people who have breakthroughs where they connect with the horse, talk to it, and touch it. They build rapport and trust with this 1,200 pound animal,” she says. “You realize your horse is counting on you and you are counting on it. There’s an inherent
Therapeutic horses are selected for their calm, steady demeanors. Haag says that horses seem to be intuitive to the needs of the rider. At Dream Catchers in Williamsburg, Executive Director Nancy Paschall says therapeutic horses love interacting with all different types of people, from kids with autism to adults recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.
Mike, an alumni of a substance abuse program at The Farley Center at Williamsburg Place, participated in a program at Dream Catchers. He admits he was skeptical at first, but the experience helped him. “It made me want to continue to get better. There’s so much to live for, and so many things in this world to discover,” he says.
The program at the Farley Center is mainly designed to be experiential, rather than riding-focused, for people in substance abuse recovery. Therapist Justin Mangold says that as part of the extended treatment program, small therapy groups participate in activities at the stables with horses.
“Horses draw people out emotionally and it takes practice to have mindful presence with a horse,” he says. Horses can often be metaphor for issues the group is working on together, representing control or powerlessness. The benefit is that the group encourages each other to continue taking emotional risks and be more open.
“It serves as an integral part of our introspective work. I’ve seen tremendous shifts and gains with my group weeks and months down the road,” Mangold says.
Mike said that for him, seeing his kids feed a horse was so exciting and a big moment for him. “Being near a horse brings you back to feeling like a kid. No worries, no stress and then you realize, there’s no reason not to be like that again.”
One thing that many people don’t know is that a major part of the horseback riding experience is “groundwork,” or the caring for the horse. When a rider is able to physically do it, bathing, grooming, and feeding help strengthen the bond between horse and rider.
Paschall says that one of the reasons that horses work well with people dealing with emotional issues, PTSD or substance abuse is the “focus on the now.”
“You have to focus in the moment. What you are doing takes up so much mental energy that you can’t think of anything else,” Paschall says. She also notes that it helps people bring their authentic selves to the lesson, because “you can’t fake it with a horse. It’s all in the body language. You have to gain her trust,” she says.
From Tackroom to Classroom Local Study Proves Therapeutic Horseback Riding Helps Children with Autism
Written by Natalie Miller-Moore
A study proves what parents of children with autism have seen for years—therapeutic horseback riding helps with their symptoms. “What he gets out of this is just pure enjoyment for him. It helps him calm down. Being around the horses, he’s just a totally different young man,” says Dean Gonsalves, father of Eric, a student at DreamCatchers in Williams burg.
Over 30 weeks, researchers at the William & Mary School of Education followed 21 elementary school children with autism in the therapeutic riding classes at Dream Catchers at the Cori Sikich Riding Center and in the classroom. The study concluded that children with autism who participate in therapeutic riding show improvement in their autism symptoms, as rated on two scales: the Gilliam Autism Rating scale Autism Index, and on the social interaction subscale.
Improvements in autism symptoms were documented both in the riding lessons and in the classroom. Classroom teachers rated children’s behavior at specified times during the 30 weeks. With fewer symptoms, the children demonstrated calmer behavior, improved relationships with others and greater engagement in learning.
But the study also found that children must continue riding to see the benefits. After a 6-week break from the riding lessons, the degree of autism symptoms returned to pre-riding levels.
According to study researcher Sandra Ward, Ph.D., a school psychology professor at the William & Mary School of Education, “There is a significant decrease in autism symptoms, especially with regard to social interaction, that manifests in the child’s classroom behavior.”
This doesn’t come as a surprise to the staff at Dream Catchers. “We have always heard from parents of students with autism about the successes and improvements
they witness in the children as a result of the therapeutic riding,” says executive director Nancy Paschall.
The “Impact of Therapeutic Riding on the Social Communication and Sensory Processing of Children with Autism” study is one of the largest quantitative studies conducted on children with autism and therapeutic horseback riding.