Horses have a special connection with humans
By Spencer van Vloten
The BC Therapeutic Riding Association promotes therapeutic riding, equine-based therapeutic services, and para-equestrian activities that have improved the health and wellness of many British Columbians with disabilities or mental health issues.
We talked with BCTRA's Sharolyn, Stella, Karen, and Ashley about these programs, and why horses have so much power to change lives.
Spencer: Explain to our readers what therapeutic riding, equine-based therapy experiences, and para-equestrian activities are.
Karen (therapeutic riding): Therapeutic riding strengthens riders' bodies, builds self-confidence, and helps them overcome a range of physical and developmental difficulties.
Riders work with their horse and coaches to the build specific skills they want to improve. One person's lessons may stress hand and eye coordination, while another rider might work on communication or concentration skills, and others may focus on building organization skills through preparing their horse and themselves for riding. It is tailored to each individual and their goals.
Furthermore, riders with mobility limitations find those limitations are gone when they ride. You get many riders who were dependent on someone develop a new sense of agency, independence, and confidence.
Stella (therapeutic riding and para-equestrian): Riders who go down the para-equestrian route are riders with disabilities who’ve usually started with therapeutic riding, developed a passion for riding, and are seeking an extra challenge. They can compete at the national level in dressage, and then at the provincial and local levels in a range of competitions, including pole bending, driving, dressage, and others.
Sharolyn (equine-based therapy): Equine-based therapy is different in that it doesn’t necessarily involve any riding. I’d say it’s more like experiences: grooming the horse, walking with your horse and leading it, observing it in a field, but not necessarily riding. It’s about setting up an environment to create experiences with the horse, and then working through topics that arise from the experience.
Sometimes it's hard to understand the relational dynamic you have with your husband, parent, sibling, etc. When you have experiences with the horse, you may go through similar issues as with a human, but those issues are easier to grasp with the horse.
Let's say your horse leaves you and goes and eats in the corner. Then you equate that with experiences you've had with your partner, and it helps you understand it better, because you're more open to dissecting relational dynamics in the horse than in your partner.
You realize the horse went over to eat breakfast, because that’s when the feeder drops hay; it has nothing to do with them not wanting to be around you. You get these epiphanies: it’s not all about me, I shouldn’t take it personally, and you can apply that to so many things in your life.
Sharolyn bonds with Mannah
Spencer: What type of disabilities or mental health issues do participants often have?
Stella (therapeutic riding and para-equestrian): Autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and a lot more. Many participants might also be dealing with an injury that disables them temporarily. The list of people who aren’t suited for riding is very short. A case like this would be if a person has rods in their back that could be displaced by riding on the horse.
Sharolyn (equine-based therapy): For equine-based therapy, you might have someone who is experiencing relationship issues, struggling with anxiety, coping with a loss, feeling burdened by stress, and so on. Being around a horse is such a calming experience, and anyone can benefit from it.
In fact, during the pandemic I’ve had volunteers ask if they can just come and groom for an hour, because they need to have a soothing experience like that in their life.
Riding and equine-based therapy can benefit anyone
Spencer: How does riding differ between someone with a disability, and someone without a disability?
Stella (therapeutic riding and para-equestrian): It’s very similar at the starting level. Everyone starts an activity as a beginner and needs lots of help at learning grooming and the other basics.
The main difference is that a rider with a disability needs a bit more volunteer or parental support. For example, if they are in a wheelchair they will need some help grooming the top of their horse; they may also need an elastic band to make their foot stable in stirrup, as well as a special saddle.
Setting a rider up for success involves consultation between coaches and riders, and the great thing is that there are so many different ways to adapt and make it work.
Some therapeutic riding participants move on to competing in para-equestrian events. With the right adaptations to support them, some even win gold!
Spencer: Why horses? What makes them so well-suited to this type of therapy?
Sharolyn (equine-based therapy): Historically, horses were small, prey animals, so they have very high sensitivity and connection to the environment and to people, but in an 1100-pound body that can support a human.
Because of this sensitivity, what people feel shows up in the horse while they’re riding, so a coach or therapist can see issues in a person through the horse, and then work on those with horse and rider together.
They're big and beautiful and powerful, and they can intimidate people at first, but they also help people overcome barriers, develop confidence in doing so, and then establish an intimate and rewarding connection.
Karen (therapeutic riding): No therapy has been found to be as pure as sitting on a moving horse. It puts the muscular system through the motion of walking—which can be a profound thing for someone who can’t usually do this. Horses are unique in being able to simulate these motions and strengthen the body, while also building an emotional connection with their rider.
Ashley (therapeutic riding): Horses are very non-judgmental; they don’t stare at you, they don’t laugh at you. I tell riders, you tell that horse everything that happened today, and no one else will know.
Horses can keep the biggest secrets and you can trust them, and people can have a bond with them in a special way. In fact, it’s been shown that someone’s heartbeat will match that of their horse when they spend significant time together.
Horses have an emotional sensitivity and calming influence like few other animals do
Spencer: Is there a particular type of horse that is best for these activities?
Stella (therapeutic riding and para-equestrian): A horse with decent gaits who doesn’t bounce the rider around too much is definitely best, at least for beginners.
Sharolyn (equine-based therapy): For therapy experiences and riding, different sizes of horses can be used based on someone’s particular needs. Sometimes a person may not feel totally comfortable around a horse yet, so we can use a smaller horse that is not much larger than a big dog, and then gradually break down their barriers and increase their comfort levels.
Karen (therapeutic riding): The horse must have a safe gait, it must be sturdy enough to support a rider, and it must be able to tolerate anxiety; taking a child in wheelchair and putting them above everyone else for the first time can be nerve-racking for the child and their parents.
We also put the horses through scenarios---they must show they can tolerate the extra bodies and voices of coaches and supporters around them.
Spencer: How long does it usually take for participants to experience the benefits?
Karen (therapeutic riding): It varies widely, but what is particularly important is making sure everything is in place for that first ride to go well. A good first ride will set the foundation for success, while a negative experience can stay in someone's mind for a long time.
Sharolyn (equine-based therapy):For therapy experiences, the benefits are immediate when someone is in the presence of a horse, but certain people take a bit longer to become fully comfortable and have to work through the process more.
Spencer: Do any particular success stories stand out to you?
Sharoyln (equine-based therapy): So many of them! We’ve had many riders who get into riding through their teenage life, and it keeps them on track and focused.
Parents also credit riding for their child's confidence and skill development, such as problem solving (how to get off horse), scheduling/organizing (do me and my horse have everything we need for show?), empathy (how does my horse feel?). What you do with your horse can be applied to most facets of your life.
Karen (therapeutic riding): My biggest success was when we had a 50-year-old gentleman with a traumatic brain injury. He’d ridden horses before his injury, but was now being told by doctors that he was no longer able to.
But he was determined to do it again, and in particular to ride again with his wife. So he started with therapeutic riding sessions and doing exercises which I prepared for him. He kept at it, and within 2 years he was riding on the trot, and now he is cantering independently and riding with wife again!
Ashley (therapeutic riding): The majority of our riders here in Kamloops have autism. One moment that stands out was going up to a young rider who just completed an exercise. With her biggest smile she gave me a huge high-5, and her mom started crying because she was so proud of her daughter.
Another young girl said to me, 'if it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t be able to focus in school'. She is taking what she gets in riding, then uses in another area of life, and that’s something we see all the time with our riders.
Spencer: How can someone start riding or doing equine-based therapy?
Sharolyn (equine-based therapy): A great way to get involved in any of these as a participant is to go on the BCTRA website, find riding groups in your area, and send a message.
Most centres would be very happy to do an orientation if someone is interested. One of the stumbling points is that parents are often nervous about their child riding a horse, and meeting with the coaches and watching a session is a great way to ease these nerves.
Spencer: How can people support your programs?
Sharolyn (equine-based therapy): The most important thing is getting word out, letting people know that there are multiple ways to partner with horses, letting people know that services and education about these riding options and therapy experiences are available.
Ashley (therapeutic riding): And when it comes to awareness, one of my goals is to increase knowledge of therapeutic riding within the medical profession, so we have more doctors and nurses recommend it instead of parents raising the option first, because it really does work and we just need to spread the word.
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!