“Therapeutic Horse-man-ship”

Natural horsemanship from the eyes of a therapeutic riding instructor

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Every Thursday afternoon, I leave campus straight from class – stopping for coffee on the way – and spend the rest of my day at HALTER. I teach twelve students every week, each as inspiring as the next.

I’m 20 now, but I was only 18 when I started the process of instructor certification through PATH Int’l. I’ve been working at HALTER since May of 2014, and I’ve learned more about horses in a year and a half than I had in ten years of previous horse experience. Before coming to HALTER I knew very little about natural horsemanship, and it was there that I was introduced to the Parelli program. Since then, my understanding of horsemanship has changed drastically and my skills have skyrocketed. I’m still learning, especially from my students: whether they know it or not, my Thursday kids teach me something new about life, horses or riding every week.

I became a therapeutic riding instructor because riding is my therapy, too, and I have a huge heart for sharing horses with people who would otherwise miss out on the joy of riding. Participating in most traditional sports is physically impossible for me, but riding has always been my passion and horses help me stay fit. From the moment I got my horse, Dancer, I wanted to share her with as many people as possible. When I found a therapeutic riding center near my barn in high school, I was hooked. This desire to share horses with others is what brought me to love therapeutic riding and natural horsemanship as one entity – “therapeutic horse-man-ship” is a big part of my life.

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Photo by Mark Olencki.

Here’s what I get to see from the middle of the arena:

Yes, it takes a special horse to be a therapy horse, but let me tell you: the horses these children ride are saints. They can handle almost anything, and they do their job every week even if they aren’t feeling their best that day. They form deep connections with their riders in ways that I rarely see in other lesson programs. They can adapt to various riders, from the most timid four year-old to the independent walk-trot rider. In all of this, they manage to maintain their quirks, opinions, and integrities – they are anything but machine-like, “broken down” horses. I credit this to our use of natural horsemanship.

Unlike most therapeutic riding programs I’ve encountered, at HALTER our riders spend time working with their horse both on the ground and on horseback. My students use groundwork games and challenges to prepare them for the lessons we are teaching them in the saddle: the touch-it game can get a rider thinking ahead and planning in a way that helps her follow a sequence of instructions, for instance. Knowing the friendly game allows us to have discussions about energy when the child is not being so friendly. Sending the horse to/over/around an obstacle changes the way the rider thinks about transitions, and riding becomes less about force or strength and more about energy and communication. Victories in these games say to each child: Yes! You can communicate complex ideas – maybe even without words.

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The results are phenomenal. I’ve seen my riders gain muscle tone and coordination, speak full sentences and communicate more clearly than ever before, dramatically increase confidence or learn how to follow a sequence of instructions.

One of my classes of three riders can all trot independently as of a few weeks ago, with no help from spotters. When I first started teaching, these riders were just learning to trot with lots of support and for short amounts of time – small circles on a lead line or a few steps along the rail with sidewalkers, for instance – and now they’re capable of changing their horses’ speeds, managing their spacing, balancing and steering all at once! They can use the zone 3 driving game to practice transitions on the ground and lateral flexion to practice their emergency stops or changing direction with an indirect rein. It’s beautiful to watch. Despite their various disabilities, they are learning skills from their horses that translate to their everyday lives.

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A student shows off her groundwork for a camera crew – they were so impressed with her relationship with her horse!

Still others are learning to walk unassisted by crutches and walkers, managing their emotions, increasing their capacity to focus, improving balance or any combination of the above. Not every day is perfect. If you are involved in therapeutic riding in any capacity you know that the work is hard and plans rarely go how we imagined they would. But the tiny miracles that keep us going are always happening.

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I get to see our volunteers learning skills and gaining confidence, too. I still remember the moment a child spoke his first full sentence while I served as his sidewalker four years ago. I still remember the smile of a rider that trotted for the first time as we ran along the fence. My time as a volunteer was incredibly impactful for me and I get to see this in the volunteers that serve with me at HALTER, as well. Learning to “think laterally” is good for anybody!

Finally, I get to see how proud the riders are of their accomplishments. When they run back to their parents and say (or sometimes, yell across the arena): “Look, mommy, I did it!!” – My heart melts. One of my favorite parts of teaching is to brief parents after a lesson… to tell them all the wonderful things their child(ren) can do.

At HALTER, there is no can’t, and I have yet to find the limit. These riders (and horses and volunteers) can do anything. I’m so grateful to be a small part of that, and to share in the magic that these horses give us.

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N. B.: Originally published in the HALTER e-newsletter in an abbreviated form. Pictures from HALTER Facebook page except when noted otherwise.

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Published by

Sarah Madden

Currently an intern at Tryon International Equestrian Center, Sarah graduated from Wofford College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and environmental studies. Sarah competed with the Wofford College Equestrian Team, is a PATH Int'l Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor, and in her spare time, enjoys playing with and riding her American Saddlebred mare, Dancer.

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