Made for This: Why I teach Therapeutic Riding

This post was originally written in mid-February of 2015, just days before I became a certified instructor through PATH Int’l. I was overwhelmed by insecurity and fear, and I needed to do something about it. This was the result.

This is me, in the middle of too much work to do and not enough time to do it, bad weather, and bad morale… taking the time to stop and stamp out the panic that’s rising in my heart.

I’m missing two days of school this week and devoting every moment of my time, from Wednesday at 3:30pm to late Sunday night when I return, to one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.

I’m going to Virginia to be certified as a therapeutic riding instructor through PATH Int’l. I’m nineteen, and I’ll be workshop-ping and riding and teaching with much older adults who are mostly already professional equestrians – but ALL adults. I know that I know my stuff, and I even know what I don’t know! But somehow I feel that I don’t belong – that I might fail. I’m going to walk into a 2.7 million dollar facility Thursday morning and feel incredibly small. I will be tempted to tell myself, “I don’t belong here.” 

I've been hooked since high school! Photo is NOT mine - taken by Riverwood Therapeutic Riding Center
I’ve been hooked since high school! Photo is NOT mine – taken by Riverwood Therapeutic Riding Center

But now, before I even start packing, I’m going to tell myself why I DO belong “here.”

I’ve been actively working towards this moment since my senior year of high school, really: I volunteered in therapeutic riding for almost two years and my college search kept therapeutic horsemanship in mind. I took on extra coursework as a college freshman to fulfill the online coursework portion of the certification process while balancing my regular courses. I spent seven straight months teaching hundreds of riding lessons to special needs children, and possibly just as many hours working on my own riding skills, both at HALTER and with my own horse. I have read manuals, study books, and all kinds of relevant literature. I started taking sign language classes to better do my job. I joined the Wofford Equestrian team, in part for the love of riding but also to learn how to ride unfamiliar horses in an unfamiliar discipline, observe the process of teaching riding from another perspective, and develop my professionalism. But it started even earlier: I’ve been passionate about sharing my horse with others since the moment she was mine, and I’ve been “that horse girl” all my life, even before I had any access to riding.

I was made for this.

Countless people have helped me: The volunteers and instructors at HALTER that graciously took me in and taught me how to see horses differently, offered me free saddles and borrowable show clothes and extra boots and anything that could help me in my pursuits, and willingly put themselves under my leadership even though I was (am!) not their superior; the students that I love so very much and am privileged to teach each week; my coaches and teammates from the Wofford Equestrian Team that have taught me a new discipline and advised and encouraged me the whole way; my sweet, adoptive family that let me stay in their house for the summer so I could intern and work in Spartanburg; my family, who has essentially given up all face-to-face contact with me in the past nine months excepting short 48-hour visits and the occasional vacation; my classmates and friends, who have loved me through this whole process and encouraged, affirmed, and tolerated me when I felt panicked or unsure; ANYONE that’s EVER sat on my horse in the past five years and let me teach them – there are roughly FIFTY of you!; the therapeutic riding center where I volunteered in high school, for first putting the instructor notion into my head; my first riding instructors in North Carolina, who solidified the passion that I already had but hadn’t fully developed yet; and finally, my horse, who is the best thing I’ve ever been given – literally a miracle – and the reason I want to share horses with those who cannot otherwise know and experience the good they can do and the joy they can bring.

This list makes me cry.

Because you know what? It proves that in a way, my deepest fears ARE true: I shouldn’t be here. I’m too young. My path has just been too weird. I’m just a college kid – I’m just “that horse girl” whose car smells funny and whose entire schedule revolves around her four-legged child.

But nevertheless, here I am. I’m doing exactly what I was made to do. God put me here, and specifically here, for this.

“Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 40:4-5

“So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For, ‘In just a little while, 
he who is coming will come
 and will not delay.’” Hebrews 10:35-37

Context aside, this is what the Lord has done for me, and this is what He’s promised: He is with me! And He has brought me here. On purpose. For a purpose. No matter what happens this weekend, I’m already exactly where I need to be.

Somehow, even though I don’t belong… I do.

Spoiler alert: I passed!

Post-Certification Reflection

I’m sitting in the backseat of a car typing this because I can’t sleep and I can’t read and I still have three hours til we get back to Wofford. That, and I have a lot to process right now. I don’t think it’s hit me yet that I am a bonafide, certified therapeutic riding instructor. I still feel unworthy, in a sense, and I think this will always keep me searching for more knowledge in the best way possible. At the same time, I’ll have to trust myself more in the future.

The weather in Virginia Beach was quite horrible, more so because we were at the barn for four long days in miserable weather. The workshop required nine hour days both in a classroom at the barn and some hands-on activities in the arena, where six layers of thermals and coats were not enough to keep me from losing feeling in my toes and shivering the rest of the day. My ears, though covered the entirety of the first two days, became so dry and itchy that I had to quit using the earmuff. I wore gloves even when in lectures, and my scarf was always on. When I rode in a demonstration, I lost my stirrup once because I couldn’t feel my toes!

The workshop gave me several good tools to use in my teaching, including formatting, techniques for specific disabilities, and for selecting horses appropriately. It also showed me the many philosophical differences between the way HALTER sees horses and the way most traditional riding instructors teach. I felt conflicted several times because my ideas on progression were different than others, and my methods varied hugely sometimes, but the evaluators were very clear that style of teaching does not impact your score provided you teach effectively and safely. If anything, I am more confident in our approach to teaching riding.

The riding test was incredibly stressful, though I am infinitely benefitted by the fact that I am accustomed to climbing on unfamiliar horses and working through quirks because of equestrian team. The horse I rode was a massive thoroughbred with a long, arching stride, which was very difficult for me to sit. I’m convinced my left stirrup was a hole too short, because I had a much harder time keeping that stirrup and my ankle felt pretty numb afterwards. During the warm up – a luxury compared to horse shows – “Gator” was super keyed up and was dragging me around the arena. He liked to stick his nose up in the air and didn’t care for too much rein contact, and he threw his head up in the air very aggressively, even when we were standing still. I decided I didn’t want to go first because I wanted him to get a chance to breathe, so I got to go third of the eight riders.

For having not ridden through the pattern in its entirety before, the actual test went pretty well, especially since Gator was difficult to bend and regulate with regard to speed. My scores reflected what I thought: my sitting trot needs some work! This is especially true with a long-strided horse that is difficult to sit, since I tend to tense up instead of absorbing the movement of the horse. These were the only two elements (both sitting trot) in which I did not meet criteria, but my overall impression score made up for the difference. I passed with the minimum score… I am 100% okay with being an average rider, especially as a nineteen year-old with the jumbled riding past I have. Honestly, the test was fun once I got started! The best part was the huge change in Gator’s stress from the warm-up to the test. I was so thankful for the time we had to compose ourselves! It was like everything just fell into place.

The teaching test was the next morning and was the scariest for me, since I hadn’t taught in a few months and I was feeling very unsure of how our usual methodology would be received. I went with a very simple lesson plan that I was comfortable with so that I could focus on teaching with correct phrasing and formatting and still have plenty of time to finish my whole lesson. If anything, my lesson should have been a bit more challenging – I underestimated my riders! Both were semi-independent and super quick learners. I had a couple issues, but overall I felt pretty solid about my lesson. I can’t wait to use some of the tools I’ve learned with the riders, horses, and volunteers I know!

Waiting for results (riding test results took two days!) was ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE. I finished my lesson at 10:50 a.m. and did not know until almost 4:45 p.m. whether or not I had passed. I had a massive headache all day while I was trying to read and be productive, and I thought I was going to faint walking from the classroom to the conference room. They told me almost as soon as I sat down that I had passed, which was a relief – so much so that I almost cried!

Photo by HALTER, Spartanburg, SC
Photo by HALTER, Spartanburg, SC

Currently, I’m writing this sitting in a gas station parking lot getting gas somewhere in North Carolina. We still have at least two hours to go, and I am all kinds of restless. I hate sitting in cars this long. I can’t read for classes because I don’t have light… so I’ll continue to reflect on and enjoy this moment, I guess. School will have to wait.

I get to be PAID to teach children how to ride – children that need horse exposure the most! More importantly, children that would otherwise not have any access to horses… I get to share horses with some of the most deserving people in our community. I am so. Excited.

I was made for this.


Published by

Sarah Madden

A PR and Marketing Coordinator at Tryon International Equestrian Center, I graduated from Wofford College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in both English and environmental studies. I'm a Wofford College Equestrian Team alumna, a PATH Int'l Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor, and my spare time, enjoy trail riding my American Saddlebred mare, Dancer. Oh, and I've got an awesome three-legged dog for a roommate.

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