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Therapeutic Horsemanship Builds on the Bond Between Humans and Horses

By S. Mathur

The bond between humans and animals is ancient, mysterious and undeniable. SIRE Therapeutic Horsemanship builds on this bond to provide horse riding therapy programs for children and adults with a wide range of disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Down syndrome, developmental delay and ADHD, as well as brain and spinal cord injury. The program's clients also include military veterans suffering from physical and emotional traumas.

Advancement Manager and Instructor Natalie H. DeJong says that therapeutic horsemanship provides benefits on many different levels. At the most basic, it builds a relationship of trust: "Researchers postulate that a relationship with a horse can provide the basis for more authentic, open, trusting relationships in general. Not judgmental, therapy horses do not react to a person's disability, gender, social status or skin color."

Trust creates empathy and self-confidence "As students start to understand the horse's sensitivity and vulnerability, they exhibit empathy. Horses have had to be proficient at reading body language to survive predation and to live in herds. When a student overcomes fear and shows calm, confident movements, the horse's reaction is immediate. The honest, instant feedback from a horse teaches self-awareness and rewards emotional regulation. Students also develop confidence in their self-efficacy, their ability to respond to challenging situations."

There are physical therapeutic benefits as well as emotional, explains DeJong: "Recent research also has shown that horses provide their riders sensory stimulus and movement patterns that mimic those of natural human activities such as walking. This exercise builds greater flexibility, strength, and walking abilities. Being outdoors also improves mood and focus. Caring for a horse takes hard work and commitment, important life skills that are internalized." This is different from mechanically repeated physical exercise, because "Therapeutic horsemanship provides access to a sport with real (but controlled) risk. To stay safe, students must pay attention and follow the rules."

All this might explain why horse riding is more successful than other forms of therapy. DeJong says "Participants can progress on many fronts: muscle tone, weight management, balance, posture, coordination, motor skills, attention to tasks, and emotional and psychological well-being. In the clinical setting, the disability may be hard to forget; but on the back of the horse, it can become invisible." Therapeutic horsemanship complements other forms of therapy and exercise, improving overall physical and emotional health.

SIRE was founded in 1983 and now has three locations in the Houston area, 16 certified therapeutic riding instructors and 34 therapy horses. A personalized program is created for each rider.

DeJong shares some recent success stories:

- Mom Suzanne Garofalo says her son's "special needs teacher," - a horse has helped Paul make connections and grow in confidence. She credits "that magical, millennia-long connection between horses and humans." - Since starting at SIRE, Emma's gross and fine motor skills have improved, her confidence has grown, and her academic and social skills have increased tremendously. "Emma is on fire and SIRE is helping her to carry her torch," says mom, Robia. Emma is now able to ride at a show barn for able-bodied riders.

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