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Horse Play

Therapeutic riding programs can be beneficial—and fun, too!



Thirteen-year-old Jonaah Super, wearing a pink t-shirt, black pants, and jaunty cowboy boots, sits tall as she walks Martin, a dark brown quarter horse, around the riding ring. Just ahead of a pair of orange cones, she squeezes her legs into his sides, and the horse starts to trot. 

Jonaah’s riding instructor Sophia Rosenbloom calls out, “Up, down, up, down.” Jonaah bounces several times in her seat before managing to execute seven posts in a row. 

What might sound like an ordinary riding accomplishment is, in fact, a remarkable achievement when you consider that Jonaah was born with traumatic brain injury and cerebral palsy. 

Aside from two volunteers who jog beside the horse and another volunteer who runs in front while loosely holding the lead, it is hard to tell that the cheerful girl struggles with any special challenges. Indeed, Jonaah, who has been taking weekly lessons at Pegasus Therapeutic Riding in Brewster for two years, remembers to keep her hands off the saddle and does all the hard work of lifting herself into a rising trot on her own. 

Scenes like this are repeated every day at Pegasus, as well as at two therapeutic riding centers, Access Equestrian and Endeavor Therapeutic Horsemanship. All three programs, which are taught by PATH Intl. (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International)-certified instructors, help people with physical, social, cognitive, and emotional disabilities overcome challenges through riding and horsemanship. 

Students who enroll in these programs have a wide range of disabilities. Yet unlike hippotherapy, which is akin to physical therapy on a horse, the goal of therapeutic riding (also called adaptive riding) is always the same: to teach riding skills. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t numerous physical benefits to therapeutic riding. A horse’s gait largely mimics the movement of a person walking, making riding especially beneficial for people with limited mobility, explains Liz Fortes, lead instructor at Pegasus. What is more, while riding, a person must constantly respond to the horse’s movements, which results in greater balance, coordination, and core strength. 

“We’ve noticed her improved muscle tone and how she’s sitting upright,” remarks Jonaah’s dad, Steve Super. “That is something that she didn’t have when she started.” The improvements have been so dramatic, in fact, Jonaah is no longer doing physical or occupational therapy outside of school. 

For individuals struggling with ADHD and autism, experts say that the movement of a horse can reduce anxiety and improve attention. Endeavor founder and instructor Emily Wygod introduces me to a chestnut-and-white paint horse with a notoriously choppy gait to make that point. “He’s really great for a lot of our riders who need help attending and need more sensory input because of all his movement,” she says. “He really gets kids to focus.” 

Susan Neithardt, whose daughter, Katie Ucker, 15, has autism and takes weekly lessons at Endeavor, can attest to the benefits of therapeutic riding. “We tried everything with Katie,” she recalls, “and this was the first activity that really worked with her.” 

Just as important for Neithardt and other parents are the emotional benefits of therapeutic riding. For all of the participants I spoke with, riding was a source of significant pride and confidence. 

Caroline Black, an Endeavor board member whose 14-year-old son, Will, was diagnosed with global development delays and ADHD, explains, “For Will, growing up in therapies and everybody always telling [him] what to do, it’s empowering to be on this huge animal and be the one in charge.”

All three facilities also offer un-mounted programs in which students are taught how to tack, groom, and care for their horses. According to Denise Avolio, who runs Access Equestrian’s therapeutic riding program at Sunnyfield Farm, grooming provides a bonding opportunity for rider and horse and teaches important skills such as sequencing, responsibility, socialization, and hygiene. 

What keeps students with disabilities coming back week after week, however, is that therapeutic riding is fun and doesn’t feel like therapy. 

“Initially we were just trying to find an activity that she could do,” says Melissa Brandeis of her daughter Julia, 14, a Pegasus rider who has a seizure disorder and developmental delays. “But she loves it. She gets out of the car and can’t get in here fast enough.” 

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