By Cindy Atoji Keene
How does therapeutic horseback riding work? Adaptive riding instructor Terry Snow of The BiNA Farm describes it like this: “Imagine you are in a wheelchair. You come into a barn and are able to get on a horse. Suddenly you’re eye-level instead of looking up, experiencing three-dimensional movement that mimics the human gait. You have the freedom to go where you want. The result is transformational.” Snow, who is co-founder of the non-profit, Natick-based organization, has witnessed incredible changes due to the instant connection that children have with the horses. “Horses don’t judge; they don’t care what you look like and if you’re in a chair or not.”
Research has shown that students who participate in therapeutic riding can strengthen muscles and improve flexibility and balance, as well as learn companionship, confidence, and responsibility. At BiNA’s Sherborn location, six horses, including Shasta, an Arab Welsh chestnut pony, await students with a range of medical disabilities including autism, cerebral palsy, Downs Syndrome, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries and ADD. “An autistic child who craves stimulation and movement might need a bigger walk gait while another one who is physically challenged will be matched with a horse who moves very slowly,” said Snow, a nationally-certified instructor. “Shasta is my go-to horse; he is so sensitive, he knows when a teenager might want him to be a pistol, or he gently sniffs to welcome a four-year-old who is new and just discovering horses. It’s hard to believe it’s the same horse.”
Q: What’s an example of a transformation that you’ve seen in a child?
A: One little girl, with a neurological delay, had a sensory disorder. She couldn’t bear the feeling of clothes rubbing against her skin, and it took an hour and a half just to get her socks and shoes on in the morning. We gave her a bareback lesson, and rubbed her bare feet on the horse’s mane. The warmth and movement of the horse helped her relax. For the next week, her parents said, she wasn’t bothered by sensory overload anymore. Gradually she also made eye contact, and developed beautiful posture. It was miraculous for her.
Q: How can therapeutic riding help a child who has behavioral issues?
A: Horses are very sensitive animals that can pick up on emotions, feelings and attitudes. If a child is misbehaving, a thousand-pound horse won’t respond to directions, unless asked or led in the correct way, which is a lesson in itself. Horses are herd animals, so you can’t bully a horse to get what you want.
Q: How do you train the horses?
A: When we bring a new horse into the program, we throw balls, put rings on its ears, and all the other games that it will experience during lessons. Some horses get it right away; other horses are claustrophobic, and they’re not the horse for us. There is always an inherent risk with any activity with a live animal, but we also have a leader and two sidewalkers in the ring. The horses are trained and know their job; they know not to move when they’re being groomed by someone next to them who is in a wheelchair.
Q: How is a typical lesson structured?
A: We might start by grooming the horses or going over safety rules, then warm up with exercises, games and riding skills including horsemanship practice and obstacle courses. The obstacle courses might include stretching out and putting a ring on a cone. These are all activities that encourage hand-eye coordination for kids, as well as spatial concepts.
Q: How did you get involved with therapeutic horseback riding?
A: It started when my daughter, now 22, was 5 years old. She was one of those children who didn’t play with dolls but was interested in horses. I helped out with lessons when the barn was shorthanded, and saw the magic when special needs children came in.
Q: What does your family think about horses?
A: My husband happens to be allergic to dogs and horses, but he’s very patient and has been cleaning my horse-smelling car for 29 years.