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Questions & Answers about Therapeutic Riding

The following interview appeared in SHE Magazine, Kenosha WI.

By: Jennifer Pape, Founder
PATH Intl. Registered Instructor
Willow Creek Ranch
Therapeutic Riding Center

1. Tell me a little bit about Willow Creek Ranch.

Willow Creek Ranch (WCR) is a non-profit 501(c)3 therapeutic riding program for children and adults with special needs. WCR is a center member of PATH Intl. (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International). In September 2007 WCR began a pilot program to see if there was a need in the community for this type of service. The program began with three children, eight volunteers and the help of our three horses; within 6 weeks WCR was serving 17 clients with the help of 25 volunteers.  The program has grown dramatically over the past five years serving over 60 clients per year, with 100 volunteers and seven program horses. WCR currently has nine clients on a waiting list. WCR relies on donations, scholarship funding, and support from the community to keep the cost of lessons at a minimal fee for the services we provide. Our program would not be possible without the help from volunteers. They enhance the quality of the program while making the lesson safe, enjoyable and effective.

2. What services does WCR offer and who utilizes its services?

WCR offers equine-assisted activities and therapy (EAAT) to children age three to young adults.  There are numerous types of diagnosis' WCR currently serves, but is not limited to: ADD, ADHD, autism, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, traumatic brain injuries, learning disabilities, and speech, hearing and visual impairments.

WCR prides itself in providing a safe and effective riding program by combining horse and rider with a variety of therapeutic activities while teaching a basic riding skill. Our therapeutic riding lessons are offered by a PATH Intl. registered instructor and trained volunteers.   The instructor will lead the rider through a series of exercises specifically designed to address and improve the rider’s needs. The instructor will focus on individual therapeutic goals and objectives derived from the evaluation done prior to their first lesson.  I tell the riders "anything I can do standing on the ground, you can do on a horse."

3. How many clients do you have at any given time?

Riding sessions are 6 weeks, starting mid-April through end of October. Once a week each client participates in a 45-minute lesson, there are 3-5 clients in each class, each class is grouped together by age and/or riding ability.

4. What is therapeutic riding? And what does it offer that traditional physical or occupational therapy does not?

As the horse moves, the rider's body is moving forward and back, up and down, and side to side, requiring the rider's muscles to contract and relax in an attempt to re-balance. This movement of the horse reaches deep muscles not accessible in conventional physical or occupational therapy. The three-dimensional rhythmical movement of the horse is similar to the motion of walking, teaching rhythmical patterns to the muscles of the legs and trunk. During a lesson, stopping and starting the horse, changing speed and changing direction increase those benefits.

The warmth of the horse may also aid in relaxation, especially of the legs. All of our clients ride in either a bare-back pad or an English saddle to provide close contact with horse to increase the benefit. Gravity helps to stretch the muscles in front of the leg as the rider sits on the horse without stirrups. Riding with stirrups with heels level or down helps to stretch the heel cords and calf muscles, to help with toe-walking or drag his or her foot. Stomach and back muscles are stretched as the rider is encouraged to maintain an upright posture against the movement of the horse. Arm and hand muscles are stretched as part of routine exercises on the horse and by the act of holding and using the reins.

5. Why did you open the facility? What is your background, both with horses and with physical/occupational therapy?

Since my childhood I have always had a passion and love of horses and having a horse growing up I knew I wanted my children to experience the responsibility and rewards of owning a horse. In 2003, I bought a horse, and one soon became three! My youngest daughter, Kirsten, shares my passion and has been riding since age four and competing since age six.   In 2006, I was introduced to therapeutic riding by a family friend and saw firsthand the therapeutic benefits to children with a variety of disabilities. When I found my passion in riding and caring for my horses, I knew I wanted to share my experience with others, and what better way than to give back to children and young adults with special needs who may not otherwise have this opportunity.

I have been working at a specialty hospital for the past 12 years as an Outpatient Coordinator scheduling for Physicians and Psychologist, and also Physical, Occupational and Speech therapy.  I have seen the benefits patients’ receive from the time of their initial evaluation to their discharge.

6. As an instructor you see the difference a horse can make in participants lives. Can you elaborate on that? What are some of the differences you see?

During a riding session I heard an eight year old with Autism, who is non-verbal and uses a communication device to speak, say his first word when he asked his horse to "walk". To see a child on a horse with sensory problems and have it decrease over a series of weeks, this once very hyper child often seems calmer; to see a child catch and throw swishy balls to the side walkers, when the child never touch these types of balls previously. We incorporate the use of sensory balls, weighted vests and grooming the horse to decrease sensory defensiveness and improve sensory processing. The input from the horse can also help decrease tactile or sensory defensiveness.

EAAT is also a way to incorporate social interaction for some of our shy, timid riders; they have made life-long friends. After only two weeks of riding, one rider started initiating conversation with the other riders and volunteers independently, more importantly with confidence and higher self-esteem. A strong sense of responsibility develops as the rider learns to take part in the care of the horses and equipment and this also carries over into their daily life.

Before a child can read, it is necessary to recognize the difference in shapes, sizes, and even colors. These can all be taught on horseback, as part of games and activities during a 45 minute lesson. There is less resistance to learning when it is part of a riding lesson. Through the use of letters and numbers placed around the arena, letters can be taught, and reading of individual words by word recognition can also be learned. Games involving words and pictures for tack and equipment used on the horse during a riding lesson help to teach important life skills involving reading.

Counting is learned by counting the horse's footsteps, objects around the arena, or even the horse's ears and legs. Addition and subtraction are taught through games involving throwing numbered dice and adding or subtracting the numbers. Because the concepts are taught through games, resistance to learning is decreased.

Something as simple as holding and using the reins requires a great deal of motor planning. Knowing which comes first in a sequence of events is an important part of most activities. These and other similar skills are taught on horseback though the use of obstacle courses, which the rider may have to weave through cones, stop their horse at a ground pole, drill team routines, and many other games and activities.

7. Why horses? What is it about horses that they're able to make such a profound connection and have such a profound effect with patients?

A rider who interacts with his or her horse may extend this interaction to others and form meaningful relationships with people. Building a relationship with any animal, especially a horse is very rewarding in many respects; for a person with an emotional, social or psychological disability, the trust and loyalty of a horse demonstrates to the rider how important he or she is; they may then apply this newly-acquired self-esteem to personal relationships. A horse may also help a person feel in control of his or her situation, since in dealing with horses there is a direct relationship between action and reaction. To learn how to care for (and ride) a horse, a child or young adult must also be able to communicate effectively with both horse and instructor. In this way riding is a social activity, may be less uncomfortable in social situations.

Riding a horse is also a unique experience and it helps empower a person and enable them to connect with others on a personal level. The sometimes-unpredictable nature of animals and situations also creates a real-life environment in which a rider can confront his or her fears, and adjust to situations beyond their control. Children and adults with special needs love having a quiet, peaceful environment and so do horses, they can teach each other a lot.

8. Specifically, how does therapeutic riding help diagnoses such as ADD or ADHD? Downs Syndrome? Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)?

EXAMPLES OF PROGRESS SEEN at WCR over a six week session:

  • Improved attention span with clients diagnosed with ADD and ADHD.
  • Improved posture in those with low muscle tone.
  • Children with Autism who can't sit still for longer than 30 seconds rode for 30-45 minutes without fidgeting.
  • After a client's first session of 45 minutes - she put together a 6 word sentence. She normally uses unintelligible or inappropriate words and words unrelated to events.
  • We've also had the opportunity to hear a child's first words, who up until this point, per his mother, never spoke and has been learning to "sign". The client was repeating the numbers "1,2,3"; the color "blue" and letters "A,B,C".

9. What do you find most rewarding in your work? Tell me a story of a moment that made you think, "THIS is why I do what I do!"

Seeing the smiles on the faces of the parents and caregivers, to witness the tears of joy when their child has overcome one of their daily challenges and the cheers to encourage their child to reach higher goals; they are the ones who need to be rewarded. For their countless hours of compassion to care for their childs’ needs. I am truly blessed for my health and the health of my three children and I want to give back to the parents for what they provide for their children, for their sacrifices and devotion, it’s the least I can do. I am thankful I can provide 45 minutes a week to make a difference in their lives through the use of these amazing horses.

It's my love of horses that I share my passion, knowing what I receive from my horses, I am truly grateful for to the horses.  Sometimes I feel it's my program horses with their kindness, caring and gentle ways that are doing the job no one else can do and I am just directing them and guiding them through games and obstacles to give my riders’ the most benefit of these magnificent animals.

10. What's the greatest challenge in your work?

The greatest challenge is scheduling volunteers; for each horse and rider combination a horse leader and one to two side walkers are needed. One way to get involved is to become a volunteer.

Our program would not be possible without the help from volunteers. They enhance the quality of the program while making the lesson safe, enjoyable and effective.

Volunteers needed include board members, office projects, fundraising and special event committee work personnel, horse leaders, side walkers, equine management, equipment maintenance and various other talents that can be utilized for this most notable cause. Your support is appreciated.

WCR relies on donations, scholarship funding, and support from the community to keep the cost of lessons at a minimal fee for the services we provide. Your tax-deductible donation can provide scholarship funding for a child or adult. You can also sponsor a horse or purchase a stall at the facility.

To get an even better idea of how you can become involved with Willow Creek Ranch, we invite you to tour our facility and observe our riding lessons; meet our volunteer team and the "crew" (program horses).

11. What are your hopes for the future for the facility?

My vision for the future of WCR is to purchase a facility with an indoor and outdoor arena and sensory trails. At this time our facility operates with an outdoor arena, classes are weather permitting April through October.

I would like to expand WCR programming to include day programming with vocational opportunities to give people with special needs a chance to learn life skills and use the work experience to be able to one day work in the community.