Horse Play: Youngsters with Disabilities Can Form Special Relationships with Their Horses That Can Boost Self-Esteem and Lead to Increased Levels of Patience and Trust

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Therapeutic horseback riding provides benefits to children with disabilities of all types. The horse's soothing rhythm, which moves a rider's body in a manner similar to a human gait, helps children with physical disabilities strengthen muscles while improving balance and flexibility. Those with cognitive disabilities soak up the rich sensory stimuli associated with the riding experience and learn to focus and follow directions. Youngsters with emotional disabilities form special relationships with their horses, which can boost self-esteem and leads to increased levels of patience and trust.

Of course, therapeutic horseback riding isn't only for children; people of all ages can benefit from such therapy. The list of disabilities that may benefit from equine-facilitated therapy and activities includes: muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, visual impairment, paralysis and attention deficit disorder.

Therapeutic horseback riding, which has been used in Europe for more than 50 years, is now improving the lives of individuals with disabilities in the United States. Programs across the country have sprouted up to provide those with disabilities an opportunity to improve themselves physically, mentally, emotionally and socially through horseback riding activities.

Fun Therapy

The genesis of Hearts and Hooves, a therapeutic riding program offered by the Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge (BREC), began with a series of community surveys and public meetings. Discovering that there was a need for a service that catered to both children and adults with disabilities, the horse riding program was launched nearly 10 years ago. Now the program boasts approximately 100 participants and is so popular that a summer session was recently added.

One of the reasons for the popularity of Hearts & Hooves is that the primary focus is on making sure participants have fun rather than being forced to labor through intensive therapy. "We focus on the fun aspect rather than the intense therapeutic aspect. Most of our participants go through intense therapy already so all they really want from the program is to have fun," explains Troy Gros, BREC's marketing manager. "But even though the program focuses on having fun, because of the movement of the horse it is providing them with therapy that they need."

BREC's core mission for the Hearts & Hooves program is to promote the well-being for people with disabilities by enabling them to enjoy therapeutic riding activities and to promote the public's awareness of the advantages presented to those who participate.

The advantages can be significant. Mary Sue Jackson, program manager for Hearts & Hooves, recalls a participant that started the program unable to walk without the use of his leg braces. "By the end of the program he could get off of his horse and walk to his braces and put them on. This is the best reward you could ever receive from a program," she says.

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Families of the children who are participating in the program are grateful for the opportunity that Hearts & Hooves provides. "We have had parents say that they are thankful for BREC and programs like this because it focuses on the child's ability--not their disability. These are very powerful words which make you realize exactly why we are in the field of recreation," says Gros.

To get the word out about Hearts & Hooves, BREC uses an e-mail database --categorized by interest groups--to contact individuals who may want to participate. The program is advertised on BREC's Web site, in a newsletter and in the local newspaper's weekly events section. However, Gros says the best form of advertising is word of mouth. "When a participant or parent enjoys the program, they tell others. The program tends to fill up quicky," he says.

In order for individuals to participate they must submit a medical history and provide a medical release form from their physician stating that they are capable of riding a horse. …