Horses For Healing Brings Magic

By Ginny Masullo

ffw-feature-4-1-10Atop a windblown hill near Highfill sits a magical world that brings together disabled children, dedicated therapeutic riding instructors, caring volunteers and horses. This world is called Horses For Healing.

One of the premier organizations of its kind, HFH’s mission is to provide therapeutic riding programs for physically, emotionally and/or mentally challenged residents of Northwest Arkansas, regardless of their ability to pay. HFH’s first and foremost priority is serving special needs children.

The horse does indeed symbolize freedom. There are few among us, even if we have never so much as petted a horse, who might envision ourselves astride one of these magnificent animals. Imagine then, if you could not walk or life had not handed you the ease of an able body, what it might be like to sit on the back of a kind, gentle and intelligent horse.

To the untrained and indeed even the trained eye, the reaction between the horse and the special needs student rider appears extraordinary. Everyday large and small miracles occur.

Lisa Riley credits HFH with helping her son to both walk and to communicate.

“Because a horse’s gait is actually similar to a human’s, it translates to the rider,” Riley said. “The weekly lessons enhanced my son’s otherwise hampered ability to walk.”

Riley said it was the only time that her nonverbal son intentionally communicated.

Miracle or magic, the beneficial effects of therapeutic riding are well-documented, but not so well-known. If they were well-known every parent would take advantage of the fact that they can request, through participating schools, therapeutic riding for their special needs child.

For some, however, the idea of riding a horse may not conjure freedom but fear. This may be why some parents whose children are offered the opportunity through their public school do not take the steps that would allow their child to ride. And, possibly, why some schools do not participate

HFH is a safe setting in which student riders can learn. First the children are observed in their own environment at school by the HFH instructors. HFH instructors watch each child for at least a half-day to determine which horse might best suit each student. Safety is one of the issues considered in these observational sessions. Once the child and horse have been matched there are strict rules about who can help a child mount and dismount. Only specifically trained people may do so. Every student always wears a helmet even if they are only walking alongside the horse.

Each beginning student has at least four people to ensure their safety and enhance their riding experience. Someone leads the horse. Beginning riders do not initially take the reins. There are two sidewalkers observing the rider. One side-walker assists in relaying instructions from the riding teacher. Both may assist with physically stabilizing the rider.

The beauty of therapeutic riding is that while it provides a long list of benefits — improved circulation, improved posture, increased coordination, improved sleeping patterns and behavioral changes to name just a few — it is done through the interaction of horse, rider and play. It is not a forced therapy, but is looked forward to with pleasure.

Special education teachers who attend sessions with their students say it is by far the best therapy the students receive. Teachers also state that children who may not be able to name the day of the week are able to know when the day for riding comes around.

The horses ridden in HFH are thoroughly evaluated before they become a part of this finely tuned organization. They are sound, solid horses that as part of their training are exposed to the balls, toys and games, which are part of the learning environment at HFH. Additionally, they are acclimated to wheel chairs, crutches and all manner of adaptive devices.

While the horses may be the stars, the instructors are the kingpins of each riding session. The therapeutic riding instructor is in charge of the lesson. They document the student’s progress. There are in charge of the entire class: volunteers, horses, clients and bystanders. They ensure that the lesson is safe and that everyone involved is doing their job and having a good time. That is no small order but instructors Polly Canez and Karen Weber carry out their mission over and over.

Canez, from Mexico, trained in Dallas to become a Registered Therapeutic Riding Instructor. Weber is a certified Special Olympics Equestrian Coach. Both are keen observers of their students and are constantly fine tuning the lessons to match the needs of the students. Like the rest of the staff their dedication is infectious.

The healing element of Horses for Healing is not just for the riders. The chemistry of being around the horses, the dedicated staff and the often-transforming experiences of the children touch everyone who sets foot on the rolling pastures of HFH. Volunteers are the organization’s heart.

Categories: Features