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The Healing Horse

16 August 2011 No Comment

The Healing Horse
By Kate Hestler, Courtesy of Natural Horse Magazine

The modern medical establishment has come to recognize and embrace something that horse people have appreciated for centuries – the healing power of the horse. The therapeutic benefits of riding were recognized as early as 400 BC, but the general acceptance of riding as therapy is relatively recent.
In 1952, Liz Hartel of Denmark won the silver medal for Grand Prix Dressage at the Helsinki Olympics – an achievement all the more remarkable because Ms. Hartel was a polio victim, who rehabilitated herself from a wheelchair by riding. This event is generally regarded as the catalyst for the formation of therapeutic riding centers in Europe. Before long there were therapeutic riding centers in North America as well.
Today there are many fine programs offered which pair a horse and a human for the purpose of healing. Classical hippotherapy utilizes a horse as a means for medical treatment of the rider. Exercises are carefully designed and supervised by a trained physical therapist with the goal of effecting desired physical changes in the rider. Riding skills are not the goal.
Therapeutic riding is a more general term, and aims to accomplish physical, mental, emotional and social benefits through the teaching of riding skills. Therapeutic riding includes everything from hippotherapy to sports riding (special Olympics, for example), with the medical model at one end of the spectrum and sports riding at the other. A therapist, although helpful, is not required, but a riding instructor is necessary. Riding skills are taught with the therapeutic benefits in mind.
There are many more programs available which offer activities involving horses and which are designed to rehabilitate people with a wide variety of disabilities and problems. Horses are being used in programs for drug addicts, prisoners, troubled children and teens. Riding therapy is successfully helping people with mental-health problems and learning disabilities.
The common denominator in all of these equid-facilitated activities is the role of the horse as healer. The wonderful result in each of these programs is holistic healing at its best – for everyone involved in the effort, not only the rider. The magical ingredient is the spirit of horse.

Benefits to Riders
By its very nature, riding influences the whole person. The unique combination of horse, the horse’s movement and a non-clinical environment produces an extraordinary effect on all the systems of the body. Therefore, although therapeutic riding is frequently used to achieve physical goals, it also brings about psychological, cognitive, social, behavioral and communication outcomes. That is the beauty of the horse as a treatment tool – these “other” changes occur inherently.
The Happy Heart Hippotherapy Program (Uniquestri Ltd.) in Kingston, Ontario, has offered classical hippotherapy for the past 16 years. Lorna Cane and friends Marj Peart and Nancy Owen started the program in 1986. According to Lorna, “This is very rewarding work. I feel very lucky to be able to work with the horses I love AND to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Many disabled people have benefited from therapy sessions at Lorna’s farm. One child who has had years of therapy is Colleen, pictured on the back cover of this magazine. According to Colleen’s mother, “Hippotherapy has been a satisfying and rewarding experience for my daughter over the last few years, not only in a therapeutic sense, but also an emotional way. Being on the horse has improved her sense of balance tremendously. At one time she had to think about sitting up, and if she relaxed she would begin to tumble to one side. Sitting up straight has become a natural response for her now, and it is quite evident when she is in a vehicle, going around a curve. What a sense of accomplishment!
“Emotionally, riding has helped foster a healthy sense of self. It’s quite amazing to see a child sitting straight and tall on a large animal such as a horse, and having control over the movements of that animal. Most important is the bond that develops between child and horse. She is in tune with his movements, his likes and dislikes, as he is in tune with hers. Finally, she has the reward that she can do well at a sport that not a lot of other children have experienced, and look pretty impressive doing it.”
Saunders Dixon of Thorncroft Therapeutic Horseback Riding, Inc. shares similar experiences. “We find that the therapy really is effective, for physically, mentally, and emotionally disabled people. Through the University of Delaware we have done scientific studies that prove it, and we’re very pleased. The horse mimics walking – if you are riding on the horse, your body movements are basically the same as if you were walking on the ground.”
Thorncroft, located in Malvern, Pennsylvania, USA, is the result of Saunders Dixon’s desire to work with horses and do something meaningful and productive. Thorncroft strives to help build the physical, emotional and mental well-being of all people, particularly those with special needs, through establishing an atmosphere of cooperation, respect, and love in an equestrian environment. Thorncroft is a mainstreaming facility where handicapped and non-handicapped people come together to ride together, learn together and relate to one another; and within an accepting environment, foster growth in each other. This growth is their aim; it is the beginning of healing. Thorncroft’s peaceful, rural environment offers the necessary tools to help fulfill this special goal.
“We offer our land, our equipment, our horses and our ideals. But most importantly, we offer ourselves and our love,” say the Dixons. “Healing abounds here. Come see for yourself the joy of a student as he ‘walks’ down the narrow country trail with his horse. The horse can take him places that his wheelchair can’t go.”
Riders often develop a bond with the horse that alleviates feelings of loneliness, depression and isolation. The horse is a warm, living personality, completely without condemnation or judgment. Because horses are big and strong, they command respect naturally. For many riders, this is an altogether new concept. From this, it follows that certain rules be recognized and followed, and a new discipline is instilled where before none existed. The success in taking this new lesson to other areas of life has been rewarding. And so the horse as teacher takes healing to a new level.

Therapists and Staff
Hippotherapy requires the presence of a trained physical therapist. Jen Sivilotti, pictured behind the horse ‘Drummer’ in the photo on the back cover, is the therapist assisting Colleen during her session. “I must admit,” says Jen, “it sometimes is difficult to get myself psyched up for an evening at the barn after working all day, however, if it truly was a ‘chore’ I don’t believe I would still be doing it after almost 4 years. The bond between a child or an adult and a horse is definitely something special, and makes the therapy that much more valuable. The sense of accomplishment is evident for these individuals to whom few things come easily, and to be part of that makes me very proud.
“Therapeutically, there is no real equivalent to the movement of the horse, and it can make your job as a therapist very easy! As a therapist I am used to ‘doing’ a lot during a therapy session, but sometimes with hippotherapy much of my work is accomplished by the horse, with only minimal direction from me. It is also a challenging environment (especially to someone like me who doesn’t know a whole lot about horses) where you must be very creative and observant. Motivation is usually extremely high, likely because the clients do not view the session as ‘therapy’ at all.”
Among the staff at therapeutic riding centers can be found, of course, many dedicated horses. It takes a special kind of horse – one who is well-trained for the job and who is especially patient, able, and willing. The horses at Thorncroft, featured in this issue’s Silently Speaking section, are very dedicated to their jobs. ‘Drummer’ is one of several dedicated horses at Happy Heart and is a well-seasoned therapy horse. Lorna explains, “He was formerly Hide-Away Farm’s ‘And Lightning’ – he has a brother, born a year earlier, named ‘Thunder’,” she grins. “I bought him from them, the Harris’s, when he was three. He has been involved in the hippotherapy program for 13 years. He is also a school horse and shows off with a little piaffe from time to time, and loves to go for rides through the woods, where he thinks of himself as a trailblazer. He is beginning to learn something about Parelli’s 7 Games too,” she smiles. “When he is not being ridden, he lives out 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with 8 buddies – six horses, a miniature donkey, and a mule, all of whom contribute some therapy in one way or another.”
Equipping, staffing and maintaining a facility presents an ongoing financial challenge, especially for operations as large as 70-acre Thorncroft. According to Saunders and Sallie Dixon, two-thirds of Thorncroft’s funding comes from charges for the service, and about one-third is donated by corporations and individuals. “We have a very large scholarship fund and we have a lot of scholarships available to riders that couldn’t otherwise afford it,” explains Saunders. Tax-deductible gifts sustain their efforts as well. But success also depends upon the enthusiasm and dedication of volunteers, who are the lifeblood of any therapeutic riding organization. There are over 150 men, women and teenagers for Thorncroft!

Volunteers
Because many therapeutic riding centers operate as non-profit organizations, they depend heavily on the help of their volunteers, who assist in a variety of ways. Volunteers with horsemanship skills or a desire to acquire such skills work directly with the horses. They help with the care of the horses – grooming, tacking up, cooling out, and, when the riders are mounted, by leading the horse or walking alongside the horse to offer the rider support when necessary. Volunteers also assist with fund-raising and administrative activities on behalf of the riding centers.
Volunteers have the opportunity to learn about disabilities and horses, and to make new friends. As closeness develops among the members of a therapy team they develop into a skillful unit working together for the good of the rider. They gain tremendous satisfaction from watching their riders improve physically, mentally and emotionally, and from knowing that they are making a positive contribution to the process.
For many volunteers, this is their first real involvement with horses, and they gain an appreciation for these wonderful animals. For others, it is the first time they are face to face with a disabled person and learn to see him as an individual with hopes and fears. For some volunteers, this is the first time they are responsible for the safety of another person. All of these are enriching experiences, resulting in an increase in self-confidence and an increased sense of self-worth.
The Parents and Caretakers
According to Lorna, “One of the things I like best is watching the faces of parents who are observing a child during a session.” She says that when first introduced to hippotherapy, the parents are often nervous and uncertain, but it doesn’t take long for apprehension to change to pride.
Jenna, now ten years old, started riding at Lorna’s Farm when she was two years old. According to her mother, when Jenna started riding, “she looked very small, and I remember feeling a little anxious. I was quickly reassured, however! Jenna loves the horses, and this hippotherapy has actually led us to purchasing our own horses to ride. Jenna loves her hippotherapy and does look forward to it. Our ‘hippo’ has definitely had a very positive impact with our feelings toward horses… We feel this riding has been very beneficial to Jenna, physically, emotionally, and socially.”
The story of each rider is incomplete unless you know “the rest of the story.” The story of the rider is the story of the parents who worry, who stay awake countless nights. It is a tale of broken hearts and unfulfilled dreams. It is about facing life on an unlevel playing field. It is only natural that instructors, therapists, and volunteers focus on the safety and accomplishment of the riders – the primary attention must be on their safety, progress, therapy and advancement. But the life of a disabled child sitting on a horse begins in the hearts of the parents who care for the child day in and day out. Achievement through riding therapy benefits these players also. To see a helpless child raised above helplessness lifts these caregivers as well. To have a disabled person become whole heals the ones who love him.

Benefits to All
“I think that there is a lot of room for hippotherapy to grow,” says Jen Sivilotti, “especially through increased research and also through expanding the ‘typical’ client population. Educating the public and health professionals is another key element. Amazingly, there are still therapists and physicians who have never heard of this therapy, and therefore many children and adults are missing out on a fantastic opportunity.”
Together the horse, rider, therapist/ instructor, volunteers and parents can achieve and share a good that exceeds the boundaries of the team. It is sharing the best the human and equine spirits can give. In its pure form, riding therapy is holistic healing at its best, for everyone involved. The world is a better place, thanks to the healing spirit of a horse.

—–About the author:
Kate Hester is a freelance equine journalist and regular contributor to Natural Horse Magazine. She is caretaker of their many horses from miniatures to drafts, cows and calves, chickens, llamas, and other animals at Lazy Dog Farm.

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