Horses Provide Therapy to Challenged Children
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.
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
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."
Ryan first began riding, his muscle tone was low. The lessons
have strengthened his trunk and core, leading to increased
|All photos taken at ForgeWorks Farm's
Therapeutic Riding Program. The farm is in
Rutland. Lessons are typically $55 for a 45-minute
"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
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."
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
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,
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,"
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
"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
Sue Lovejoy is a freelancer writer from Holden.