Therapeutic Riding

I saw a child who couldn’t walk,
Sit on a horse, laugh and talk.
Then ride through a field of daisies
and yet, he couldn’t walk unaided.

I saw a child, no legs below,
sit on a horse and make it go
through woods of green
and places he had never been
to sit and stare, except from a chair.

I saw a child who couldn’t crawl
mount a horse and sit up tall.
Put it through degrees of paces
and laugh at the wonder in our faces.

I saw a child born into strife,
Take up and hold the reins of life
and that same child, I heard him say
Thank God for showing me the way…

–John Anthony Davies

Our family is graced with the presence of a lovely, happy little girl named Abigail Rose. She is my only niece, my sister’s daughter, and she has been diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy.

Abigail never crawled and although she could stand with help, she never made the effort to put one foot in front of the other till she was two and a half. She can now walk, but her balance isn’t good and it took her a long time to learn to turn without falling over.

Since the diagnosis, my sister, who has been on an emotional roller coaster, and I have had a number of transatlantic telephone conversations in which we discussed how Abigail might benefit from therapeutic riding.

Riding therapy can be helpful to physically challenged children and adults in a number of ways. People who might otherwise be confined to a wheelchair ultimately gain a new independence and mobility on the back of a horse.

Therapeutic riding begins with gentle exercises performed on horseback. These exercises include such things as leaning forward to pet the horse’s neck, leaning backwards to pat his rump, twisting left and right in the saddle. Each rider is assisted by “walkers” who make sure that he remains secure in the saddle while performing the exercises. The rhythmic movement of the horses walk can stimulate nerves and the exercises increase mobility.

Riders who start out completely dependent on helpers may eventually become independent and be able to go places and do things on the back of a horse that they could not otherwise do and even participate in competitions. These benefits can cross over into their non-riding lives too, with an increased ability to perform daily tasks.

Mentally handicapped and emotionally disturbed individuals can also benefit from riding. The interaction with a live animal can reach psyches that may otherwise be locked away and the directions given by helpers can help riders associate words with actions.

In the United States, therapeutic riding is governed by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association and in England, the governing body is the Riding for the Disabled Association, or RDA. The NARHA sponsors educational programs at institutions such as St. Andrews Presbyterian College: Department of Therapeutic Riding which offers a program to teach Therapeutic Riding Specialists.

Abigail is still a bit young to begin her therapeutic riding, but I know that when she does, she will benefit in many different ways. And who knows, she may grow up with the same deep love of horses as her Auntie Jayne!

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