Monday, October 15, 2018

How Therapeutic Horseback Riding Empowered My Disabled Daughter

When Alyssa sat on Casper’s back, the giant horse seemed to become hyper-aware of her presence and remained perfectly still. As the riding aides began to coax him out into the arena, Casper’s careful movement reflected the respect and admiration he had for my disabled daughter who proudly adorned his back. The mere sight of such as small and seemingly fragile child riding gracefully on a huge animal in comparison can be a bit perplexing for those witnessing the act for the first time. 

Casper elegantly walked around the arena with the assistance of volunteers on either side and one leading the way. He maneuvered in and out of obstacles, stopping and starting on command. Alyssa maintained perfect posture with her arms stretched out, grasping the reigns and Casper’s mane at times. Her legs spread loosely over the width of Casper as she rode bareback. Her confidence and riding skills were clearly on display. She was in charge and Casper graciously obliged. 

Alyssa remained perfectly calm for the full duration of the class. The only time she became agitated was when Casper stopped. She longed for the motion and stride, for they gave her confidence in her abilitiessomething she lacked outside of the arena. The serene setting of the open atmosphere on a beautiful fall day was the perfect opportunity for Alyssa to become the master of her domain. For those precious minutes spent riding her horse, Alyssa was no longer disabled. Her legs became one with Casper as he stepped for her. Alyssa’s non-verbal barriers disappeared. Her voice was heard through her body language as she guided Casper forward. She has gained much more than expected through horseback ridingher voice, her ability to walk, and her ability to have authority over her existence. In those moments, she was as free as a bird flying through the glorious wide-open unknown. 

When Alyssa started therapeutic horseback riding two years ago, we never imagined how much she would benefit from the experience. We were hesitant at first to have our tiny four-year old ride such a large animal. She quickly became comfortable with Casper, which helped to ease our minds. At that time, she rode with a full back supported seat. When she graduated to bareback, she still lacked the proper strength needed to sit up fully the entire duration. She would lean forward, with rigid legs that tightly clenched Casper’s back. The improvement she has made since that first semester is astronomical, especially considering all that she has been through. 

Alyssa has faced many physical challenges and setbacks over the span of her horseback riding career. Two years ago, Alyssa had bi-lateral hip reconstructive surgery to correct hip dysplasia (dislocation). Her bones were cut and placed back into the sockets, held together by hardware (screws and metal plates) for one year as the bones healed. The surgery and recovery emotionally and physically drained Alyssa. Despite her pain and discomfort, she continued to ride, as it was necessary for her recovery. Alyssa’s resilient spirit continues to shine through as bright and beautiful as the Northern Lights. 

Alyssa’s therapeutic horseback riding class is provided through Mississippi State University’s Extension Equine Assisted Therapy Program in West Point, MS at the 4-H Elizabeth A. Howard arena. The arena was donated by Tommy and Brenda Howard, and it is on property donated by Jimmy Bryan. The program has earned premier accreditation status through PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship), and serves children with developmental disabilities, autism, down syndrome, ADHD, and other conditions. There is also a veterans-focused program available, which provides much-needed emotional support to veterans in the area.

Alyssa’s riding instructor, Lori Irvin, spoke to the Starkville Rotary Club about the importance of the program. She said that through the program, students learn to care for and ride horses. According to Irvin, that interaction helps with learning empathy and creates a passion for animals. From that, she said, students can build self-confidence. 

“We're trying to incorporate their learning goals. Social skills, motor skills, balance, coordination,” said Irvin. “A horse stimulates your nervous system something like 60,000 times a minute. There's no way that can be replicated in any other kind of setting.” 

Irvin believes the horses have a healing power, and I couldn’t agree more!

What are the Benefits of Therapeutic Horseback Riding?

  • Improves balance, motor coordination and self-assurance while receiving therapeutic muscle stimulation. 
  • Improves posture, core strengthening and flexibility. 
  • Improves fine and gross motor skills. 
  • Improves teamwork and cooperation as the riders become more independent on the horse. 
  • Develops and Improves social skills.
  • Establishes a strong sense of responsibility as the riders learn to take part in the care of the horses and the equipment. 
  • Classes, horse shows and events encourage confidence, self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment as new levels of ability and goals are met. 

Who Benefits from Therapeutic Horseback Riding?

  • Individuals with muscular disorders such as hypertonia, hypotonia, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and muscular atrophy.
  • Individuals with developmental disabilities, cognitive impairment, and learning disabilities. 
  • Individuals with sensory impairment such as vision and hearing impairment, dyspraxia, and sensory integration/processing dysfunction. 
  • Individuals with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and mental health disorder.

To learn more about the MSU Extension Equine Assisted Therapy Program, visits their website:

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