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Riding High

Equine therapy offers unique training for the disabled



photo by Keelin Daly

Atop her trusted pony, Dually, Anna Bialack is poised and in control. The 13-year-old Bridgewater native takes the reins and guides the horse like a pro. Through hills and vales and patches of forest, Anna and Dually traverse the land with ease—partners, each with full confidence in the other.

Separate from her equestrian friend, Anna is less in control. Since birth, she has suffered from severe mental and physical disabilities that make speech and most physical activity extremely difficult. According to her mother, Maureen Bialack, Anna’s disabilities give rise to “fears of almost everything.” But thanks to Little Britches Therapeutic Riding Program, horses are not among those fears.

Little Britches Therapeutic Riding Program provides weekly equine therapy for more than 80 riders of varying ages and disabilities. Founded in 1979 by Peg Sweeney and Betty Lou McColgin, Little Britches currently operates out of three locations in Litchfield County—two in Woodbury and one in Roxbury.

Anna first came to the Roxbury campus as a pint-size three-year-old. Ten years after mounting Dually for the first time, the relationship between Anna and her pony remains one of the most important aspects of her therapy. The comradeship between the pair is no mere accident. Each horse used in the program is carefully assessed by temperament before being matched with a rider. Each horse receives ongoing training during its tenure at Little Britches. Says the program’s vice president, Stuart Daly, “Not all horses enjoy this work. Some horses don’t like side-walkers in their peripheral vision. Some horses don’t like the contraction of a child’s muscles.” In order to ensure the safety of each rider, the staff must create an environment in which the animal feels comfortable.

Once atop Dually—who Anna believes belongs to her, and her alone—Anna is flanked by an occupational therapist and physical therapist who walk on either side of the horse. In riding position, Anna works on core strength, balance, and posture, without ever realizing that she is exercising. Maureen, brimming with praise for the organization, explains, “Horseback riding integrates multiple therapies at once, including occupational, speech, and physical therapies, as well as sensory integration”—all of which aid Anna’s development both during and after her sessions.

Over the course of a 20-year career at Little Britches, Daly has seen firsthand the therapeutic effects riding has on disabled children, especially those who have difficulty speaking and walking. “Breathing has a lot to do with speaking. When you sit on a horse, you’re sitting up straight, you’re breathing better, and you can form words more easily,” says Daly. The movement of a horse’s hips help engage the rider’s pelvis, and that movement can create muscle memory in riders that, sometimes, can translate into actual steps. Daly remembers a longtime therapy rider who had never walked. Then one day, after his session, the second-grader dismounted and took several steps.

As awareness of equestrian therapy grows, programs like Little Britches are increasing in number and popularity. The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) includes more than 4,500 certified instructors and specialists and more than 850 member centers internationally, helping more than 58,000 riders—of whom more than 3,300 are veterans or active-duty military—to cope with physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges. Pegasus Therapeutic Riding assists the disabled in Greenwich, Darien, Brewster, and Pleasantville. The Pilot House of Fairfield and We Will Ride in Ridgefield offer similar therapies. Yet, the high cost of training and maintaining horses, property, and insurance, as well as the difficulty of obtaining insurance excludes many families on a budget.

Little Britches’s inclusive spirit makes it all the more important for people like Anna. Through the support of riders’s families and of the community, along with the efforts of its owners to make the therapy accessible to all, Little Britches has kept its cost per session remarkably low. Events like Little Britches’s third Annual 5k, held in Bridgewater Center on June 7, draw large crowds of supporters and generous donations that keep the non-profit’s three locations running smoothly. Thanks to efforts like this, Anna and Dually can look forward to years of riding ahead of them.

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