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Feature Articles July 2006 

Horses Provide Therapy to Challenged Children
by sue lovejoy 

Ride with Pride, Inc. is the perfect name for ForgeWorks Farm's Therapeutic Riding fundraising program. During a recent lesson at the Rutland farm, three obviously proud riders concentrated, commanded, and beamed atop horses as parents observed, encouraged and smiled from the sidelines. Ryan, Justin, and Samantha, children of different ages, challenges, and riding experience, all benefitted in a variety of therapeutic ways.

Nine-year-old Ryan Dwelley has been riding for five years and is the veteran of the group.

"It was hard finding activities when he was very young," said Ryan's mother, Sharon Dwelley of Holden. Several years ago, she discovered therapeutic riding by chance through an advertisement. She is extremely pleased with her son's progress.

Verbal communication is difficult for Ryan, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, Dwelley attributes her son's increased ability to take and follow directions from adults to his riding program experiences. She also appreciates the tranquility of the setting and believes the natural sensory input, such as "birds and wind, are very calming."

All photos taken at ForgeWorks Farm's Therapeutic Riding Program. The farm is in Rutland. Lessons are typically $55 for a 45-minute lesson.
When Ryan first began riding, his muscle tone was low. The lessons have strengthened his trunk and core, leading to increased balance.

"I am convinced ... the therapeutic riding has really helped him with his strength and coordination," Dwelley said. "Ryan can snowboard and ski, and he's a great little soccer player."

The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) has many accredited centers throughout Massachusetts, of which Forge Works Farm is one.

According to Forgeworks' Program Director Chris Mahan, NARHA centers "follow NARHA's Professional Code of Ethics and Standards in the therapeutic riding industry."

Occupational therapist Bronwyn Connor defined therapeutic riding as "equine-oriented activities for the purpose of contributing positively to the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of people with disabilities."

These programs are often taught ingroup settings, while focusing on individual client's needs. Mahan, a registered therapeutic riding instructor, said "group lessons are typically organized to include riders who have similar issues and goals. If a rider has a very specific goal that perhaps the other riders do not, the instructor will incorporate exercises and activities specific to that goal and instruct that rider's team of volunteers to carry out the task in the manner appropriate to the rider, while at the same time including that rider in the group activity."

This specific, medically-based form of therapy involving horses is named for the Greek word for horse "hippos." Unlike the more recreational therapeutic riding, Hippotherapy is physicianprescribed and given on an individual basis by specially trained therapists (occupational, physical, or speech).

According to the American Hippotherapy Association (AHA), Inc., "The therapist modifies the horse's movement and carefully grades sensory

input. Specific riding skills are not taught (as in therapeutic horseback riding)..." Further information is available through the AHA Web site, americanhippotherapyassociation. org.

Children can begin therapeutic riding or Hippotherapy as early as age 2 or 3. People with a variety of challenges may benefit from equine therapies. Diagnoses addressed in these programs include, but are not limited to, arthritis, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, traumatic brain injury, and visual and hearing impairments.

"All clients are evaluated to see which program they would benefit most from," Connor said, underscoring, however, "There are precautions and contraindications, (and) not all clients are appropriate candidates for equine-assisted therapy."

Susan Agneta of Shrewsbury credits therapeutic riding for providing her 5year-old daughter with an activity that is truly her own. Samantha, who has Autism, just started horseback riding this past spring. She is currently learning sign language and, to her mother's delight, commands the horse by signing "walk on" to begin her ride.

Although Samantha's attention span and concentration abilities are limited, she remains engaged throughout the entire riding session.

"To be able to participate in a 45minute activity is good for her," Agneta said. "They (instructors and children) work on following directions," and Samantha is becoming accomplished at listening and responding.

The Agnetas have tried other, more structured sensory integration therapies in the past, but "Samantha didn't like it," her mother said. Those sessions were more like work for her, whereas with the riding, she is "getting a lot of the same therapy, but she's having fun." Training and safety are paramount in the therapeutic riding industry. According to Mahan, riding instructors who prepare appropriate lesson plans for individual riders are "specifically trained in special needs." In addition to being CPR and First Aid certified, they are "tested and certified by the NARHA as to horsemanship skills and disabilities" and are licensed by the state. If specific questions arise, instructors may refer to riders' physicians or therapists for guidance, she said.

Safety precautions Mahan emphasized include: * Horses being lead by an experienced horse handler * One or two side walkers (depending on rider need) to walk beside the horse * Group lessons limited to 3 to 4 riders * Proper attire and equipment, such as certified safety helmets, safety stirrups, saddle hand-holds and individualized adaptive equipment Like Agneta, Ken Stockhaus is pleased to see the enjoyment his child garners from lessons with the horses.

"His brother plays T-ball, and Justin does horseback riding... He loves to trot. Trotting is Justin's thing," Stockhaus said.

Six-year-old Justin began riding two years ago as part of a specialized, out-ofstate therapy program focusing on his Cerebral Palsy. He is currently working on leg strength and body positioning. Riding stretches Justin's legs and assists with improving his posture, Stockhaus said.

Justin, who attends public school in Webster, receives occupational, physical and speech therapies. His physical therapist has visited ForgeWorks Farm during a riding lesson and is "a big advocate," his father said.

For parents who are considering equine therapy for their children with special needs, "I would recommend it," Stockhaus said. And, referring to the personnel at ForgeWorks Farm, he continued, "They care a lot about the kids."

In addition to therapeutic benefits and riding enjoyment, children develop close relationships with the animals themselves.

"The interaction between the kids and the horses is an amazing thing to watch...I quite often see the horses initiating contact with the riders by putting their nose out...looking for a touch. The riders love the soft feel of the horse's nose on their hands, and horse and rider very quickly become close friends," Mahan said. "The horses don't see the rider for their disability. Their affection is unconditional, and I think that comes through to all involved."

Sue Lovejoy is a freelancer writer from Holden.

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