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North Hills Monthly

Equine Therapy Provides Many Benefits for Those with Special Needs

Mar 30, 2019 10:49AM ● By Vanessa Orr

Equine therapy at Verland

Many people ride horses for pleasure. But the animals can also be used to help people with cognitive or physical disabilities as a form of therapy. And while there are numerous physical benefits—riding can help to improve balance and gait—there are other less measurable benefits as well. 

“Horses don’t judge you. You love them, they love you back,” explained T.M. Abbott, director of Riding for the Handicapped of Western PA, which has been offering free weekly rides for clients for the past 41 years. “It’s very rare that we don’t see a positive change or an improvement for the better in our riders.

“It seems to relax autistic children who are nervous or hyperactive; it helps them to focus,” she continued. “We give them tasks to do while riding, and through repetition, they sometimes learn a new skill. 

“Some children who don’t want to touch anything or anyone begin petting and brushing the horses after a few months,” she added. “And some have even begun to ‘high-five’ volunteers.”

The program, which is run out of Parkview Stables on Grubbs Road, serves about 80 clients during its May-October season. “About 80 percent of our riders have autism, though some have cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, or have had strokes,” said Abbott, adding that the program currently has a waiting list for new riders.  

Six certified riding instructors and numerous volunteers help during the 45-minute sessions, which enable clients to enjoy the physical benefits of outdoor exercise, while also allowing for a sense of independence. “We find that our kids with cerebral palsy have a more steady gait after they get off a horse; their balance is better,” said Abbott. “And it doesn’t take long for our high-functioning autistic riders to tell us how to do it; just like all kids, they become an authority after a few minutes.”

Horses with Hope, located in the South Hills, offers two forms of equine therapy:  therapeutic riding in which the movement of the horse provides benefits for the rider, and unmounted therapy for clients dealing with behavioral or mental health issues. 

“When a person is sitting on a horse, every stride provides a full rotation of the hips, and they need to sit upright, which is good for balance,” explained founder Anne Davis. “This position also opens the airway, and aids in speech and digestion.” 

Staff at HWH interact with riders, providing them with a variety of activities designed to help them learn step-by-step directions, and to develop both fine and gross motor skills. Activities also include balance exercises, leg control and stretching. 

“In individuals with cerebral palsy, it can help loosen tight muscles with the results sometimes lasting three to four days after their session,” said Davis. “It also provides many of our clients with a sense of independence because they’re sitting higher up. They don’t feel like someone is watching over them.”

While it may take a while to see changes in riders, Davis knows that the program makes a difference. 

“Emmitt, 13, has been with us since the get-go, and when he first came to us, he was struggling to walk,” she said. “Within his first year of riding, he was walking after getting off the horse. The 3D rotation builds body memory, so when he’s on the ground, he can replicate that. The horse is the key factor.” 

She gives another example of a 5-year-old girl who began riding last year, and originally hated horse therapy. “The mom came in carrying her on her hip; the girl was dead weight and didn’t wrap her legs around her mother to hold on,” said Davis. “Six weeks in, the mom decided not to sign her back up because the child wailed the whole time, but when she came for the seventh lesson, her daughter had her legs wrapped around her. Then she began walking, then running, and now she’s even talking.” 

Bonding with the horse is a huge factor in equine therapy as well.

“In our unmounted therapy program, individuals including teenagers or youth dealing with anxiety, depression or grief interact with the horses,” explained Davis. “Horses are herd animals and are very intuitive to their surroundings. They are consistently reading what’s going on with the herd, and they can feel if you’re anxious, fearful or stubborn and interact accordingly. 

“I ask clients to do various tasks and to watch how the horse responds,” she continued. “The horses give off signals, which can lead to self-discovery on the part of the client.” 

This approach works because instead of someone like a parent criticizing a teen’s bossy or negative actions, for example, the horse responds through body language, swishing its tail and turning away. “The person reflects on why the horse did that, and relates it to their actions,” said Davis. “It removes the human aspect from it. Equine-assisted learning lets clients rethink their actions and behaviors and then introduce those concepts into their daily lives.”

Horses with Hope offer blocks of sessions lasting eight to nine weeks, with riders coming one time a week for 40 minutes of riding. The equine-assisted learning sessions last 60 to 90 minutes, and may be scheduled more sporadically.

At Verland, equine therapy is tailored to each individual, many of whom couldn’t have this opportunity anywhere else. 

“Our clients are classified as severe to profoundly mentally and physically disabled, so we need to create our own form of equine therapy to fit each individual,” said Verland Equestrian Therapy Supervisor Chelsea Martinowsky, CTRI. “We see people here that other equine therapy programs aren’t able to help, such as those using feeding tubes, who are on oxygen, or who need to ride supine (lying across the horse on their back or belly).”

According to Martinowsky, the movement and warmth of the horse helps clients’ muscles relax, and helps develop core muscles, balance and coordination. Verland provides games for those who can participate, and also offers an equine awareness program consisting of modified barn chores that let individuals feed and groom the animals and keep the stables clean.

“Just being around animals helps our clients emotionally and physically; you can see them smile when the horses touch them,” said Martinowsky. “It’s a good form of outside therapy, in an out-of-office setting. Some people just come to pet the animals.” 

Verland also has three miniature donkeys which makes it easier for people in wheelchairs to brush and care for them. “Our donkeys are super nosy and friendly; they are all up in everyone’s business,” laughed Martinowsky. “I also bring my therapy dog, and she sits beside them. They tap her on top of her head, which is their way of petting.” 

While it takes time, staff does notice improvement in those who participate in the programs. “Our progress here is small, but you can see it,” said Martinowsky. “I started here 13 years ago, and we had one client who couldn’t sit up; now he can sit up for a couple of circles around the arena. Some couldn’t hold on, and now they do. Another client used to cry when he came, but now he’s laughing and smiling. He doesn’t talk, but he smiles and laughs a lot—he has his own way of telling you that he likes it.”

Verland sees about 41 clients a week, with 11 riders a day participating in 25-minute rides. “We try it with every individual who comes to Verland to see if it works,” said Martinowsky, adding that there are some people who can’t participate due to extreme allergies, physical issues, or the fact that they don’t like animals.  

The horses themselves are unique in that they are all “super tolerant,” according to Martinowsky. “Our clients are more difficult than typical riders, because they make noises, they may hit, and sometimes horses get head butted or fallen into,” she said. “The horses need to be okay with wheelchairs and our Hoyer lift in the arena, and have to be on their best behavior for eight hours a day.

“In all the years that I’ve been here, no clients have ever been bitten or stepped on,” she added. “Horses just know.”

How You Can Help

None of these programs can run without funds and/or volunteers. To find out how you can help, visit Verland at https://www.verland.org

To learn more about Horses with Hope, visit https://www.horseswithhope.org or call 412-932-6036. 

HWH's upcoming fundraisers include the Highmark Walk on May 11 at Stage AE, a Belmont Stakes Fundraiser on June 8 at South Hills Country Club and the seventh annual bowling fundraiser held at Meadowlands Bowling Lanes in November.

To learn more about Riding for the Handicapped, visit https://www.rhwpa.org or visit their Facebook page. Upcoming fundraisers include a Spin Your Wheels fundraiser in Aspinwall on April 6, and a golf outing at Pittsburgh North on June 8. A new volunteer orientation will be held on April 27 at Parkview Stables at 9950 Grubbs Road.