The Beauty of Therapeutic Riding

I was eager to have Maya start therapeutic riding when we found out she had cerebral palsy. Even before her diagnosis, I had heard many wonderful stories about how therapeutic riding was helping children with various disabilities. When she was diagnosed, Maya was about a year old and I was disappointed that she was  too young too ride. When we relocated to South Carolina two years later I contacted Happy Hooves Therapeutic Riding Center. Recently, I saw the owner who recounted our first phone conversation and it made us both laugh. I had been so excited to hear that Maya met their age requirement that I had the enthusiasm of a teenager at a rock concert. This may sound strange, and perhaps it is, but I had a good gut feeling about the possibilities of what Maya could experience through riding. As a parent to a child with a physical disability I cherish the few opportunities my daughter has to participate in activities that offer her freedom from being in her wheelchair. Therapeutic riding was, and still is, the only activity I know that offers young children with moderate physical disabilities an opportunity for social, emotional, and physical growth in a natural setting.

Maya has been riding now for almost three years. We have consistently seen improvements in her posture and balance and there is something very beautiful about the relationship between the horse and rider. I find it magical to watch not only Maya, but also other children and young adults with disabilities come alive and look uncharacteristically free sitting upon a horse. In the picture I have chosen for this post, Maya had just started riding. What is incredible to me, our family and her therapists, is that in this picture it is not remotely apparent that Maya has difficulty sitting or maintaining her balance. Her experience on the horse is not always this effortless, but this image and the potential shown within it, will stay with me for years to come. A close friend of mine, whose daughter has a rare genetic syndrome, often shares with people that her child spoke her first word on a horse. She is still profoundly moved by this experience and credits her child’s love of riding with providing the momentum for this huge developmental shift.

I also appreciate the flexibility therapeutic riding offers. If Maya is tired and having difficulty staying upright, her instructor may have her ride backwards (shown below) which uses different muscles, or will have her lie over the top of the horse. Maya loves both alternatives and she still receives input from the horse’s gait when she is lying down. There is no fighting or forcing, or even worries about “using the time efficiently” because there are many opportunities for the child to learn on and off of the horse, including learning to care for it. Rarely is Maya able to participate freely in activities and feel independent but she experiences both with riding. It’s exciting to watch her and to feel her enthusiasm for this activity. We also enjoy the time Maya spends riding. The area surrounding the stables is beautiful and it helps me to clear my head. It gives all of us a refreshing break from the monotony of indoor therapy sessions and doctor visits. And it’s fun for her! 

Initially I had difficulty finding places that offer therapeutic riding. Now that we have been involved with riding for a few years, I have learned about PATH International, which may help you locate a therapeutic riding center near you. We have found therapeutic riding lessons to be very affordable in our area especially when compared with other non-covered treatments and interventions. However, for some families any additional and ongoing costs may be a hardship. In this case, you may wish to look into Hippotherapy which is conducted by a licensed therapy professional such as an occupational therapist, physical therapist, or speech therapist who may be able to bill through your health insurance.

In the “Treatment/Interventions” section of the website we offer more detailed information about the definition of Therapeutic Riding and how if differs from Hippotherapy. We also present an analysis of current research studies that investigate whether  therapeutic riding and hippotherapy are effective in treating symptoms associated with cerebral palsy. Click here to be redirected to this area of the “Treatment/Interventions” section of the website.