By Sue Botos
Editor’s note: Only the first names of riders and their family members are used to maintain their privacy.
Mary smiled as her son Zach donned his helmet and mounted his horse, ready for his riding lesson at Valley Riding Inc., just off the Puritas Road hill in the Cleveland Metroparks. Volunteer Cary McCreedy helped give Zach a lift into the saddle and held him steady as the horse began a calm walk to the indoor riding ring.
“He’s been riding since he was 8 or 9,” Mary said, noting that her son, now 32, seems to have inherited her love of horses. “This is good exercise for him. It allows him to be ambulatory.”
Because Zach’s disabilities make it difficult at times for him to socialize, she added, “If he were not here, he would just be sitting at home.”
Zach is just one of the many success stories of Valley Riding’s Therapeutic Riding Program, which has been providing individuals with disabilities equine-assisted activities since 1988. The course is accredited by PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship), which establishes safety and quality standards for these programs. Instructors are certified in CPR and first aid and are required to attend continuing education courses.
Volunteer coordinator Barb Bower explained that the riders, both children and adults, have a range of disabilities, from physical to conditions such as attention deficit disorder, autism and Asperger syndrome. “For the most part, we see more of those issues than the physical,” she remarked, adding that there has been a large increase in riders with autism.
Stable coordinator Margaret McElhany explained that the Tuesday afternoon therapeutic program consists of six groups of six riders who participate in 45-minute sessions. These include some basic instruction and a short trail ride. A mounted leader rides ahead of the group, while volunteer “side walkers” walk alongside each horse, helping to balance the rider.
McElhany noted riding a horse gives some of the participants an experience they otherwise would not have. “Those that are in wheelchairs are usually looking up at people. Now they’re higher than everyone and they’re more mobile,” she stated. The motion of the horse also loosens lower back muscles, and helps calm muscle spasms. “The core muscles are important, because they help the rider to sit up,” she added.
The strengthening of these core muscles has had an especially dramatic effect on Garrett, 15, who has been riding since he was about 3. “We were told he would never sit up, but six months after he got on a horse he could pull himself up,” stated his mother, Sharon, who brings him to the stables each week from Brecksville.
Garrett, who has cerebral palsy and is blind, can now sit up on his horse, with only a volunteer’s hand on his leg for reassurance. “As soon as he puts his (riding) helmet on he gets a smile on his face. It’s really rewarding. He laughs when he rides and really lights up the room,” his mother said.
Because of the varied needs of the riders, instructors get creative. Liz Biddick was urging Ben, 9, to use the “rainbow reins” when he gave his mount, Honey Nut Cheerios, the signal to walk. McElhany said different colors made it easier for the students to tell the different reins apart. For riders who are nonverbal, various hand signals are used.
In addition, she said that usually English saddles were used, because they are smaller and lighter, but other riders needed a western saddle’s horn for stability. She added that students usually ride the same mount each lesson. “They really develop a rapport with the horse,” she remarked.
From the smiles on the faces of the riders as they returned from the trail, the program is a big success. Sharon, who calls Garrett a “poster child for the stables,” noted that, in comparison, regular therapy can be boring. “This is a special thing. He will do this forever. The kids don’t realize they’re getting therapy,” she said.