Healing with Horses

By Rachel Heller

Ride on benefit 2010 087When Alex, 3, is first seated on a horse, he’s understandably stiff and nervous. Not only is he challenged with a neurological disorder, but his little body, barely beyond toddlerhood, is a tiny fraction of the steed’s mass. Yet after just 10 minutes, his fists unclench and a calm smile spreads across his face. His body sways easily with the horse’s rhythmic steps, and his instructors praise his poise and control.

Hippotherapy (horse therapy) is one of several programs offered by the nonprofit Ride On: Therapeutic Horsemanship. At two rustic ranches in Chatsworth and Newbury Park, Ride On instructors teach children and adults how to cope with physical and mental disabilities through the challenge of horseback riding.

The philosophy is simple: equine movement mimics the stride and gentle bounce of human walking movement. Thus, when sitting on a walking horse, a rider’s pelvis moves up and down, forward and back, and side to side in the same type of motion as walking unassisted. Children with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy or other physical impairments that force them to spend much of their time in a wheelchair are compelled to use neglected torso muscles if they want to stay upright and balanced atop the animal. In this way, hippotherapy aids their posture, coordination, muscle tone and motor function.

“As the horse moves, you move. That creates a response that conditions the body, over time, to improve various muscles,” explained executive director Bryan McQueeney, who co-founded Ride On in 1994.

During hippotherapy sessions, a licensed physical, occupational or speech therapist walks beside the rider, offering instruction and guidance. Alex, who has a sensory integration disorder, learns to adjust his body when his horse, Linus, walks over a low wooden bridge or makes a turn. Sessions are highly supervised and children wear helmets and other safety gear.

The therapy kids get at Ride On doesn’t have only physical benefits—it also tends to spark an emotional response. Most children are thrilled simply to be around animals, McQueeney observed. After a few minutes on horseback, their faces radiate “absolute joy.”

The horse factor is a unique approach, but working outdoors with kids is a no-brainer. As occupational therapist Trudy Epstein, an instructor at Ride On for seven years, put it, “Kids don’t occur naturally in a clinic—they occur in parks, in the sunshine, outside on the swings. Out here, therapy is more organic. You can reach kids in a way you sometimes can’t in an office.”

The only nationally accredited hippotherapy program in L.A. and Ventura counties, Ride On also serves children with autism spectrum disorders and older patients rehabilitating after a stroke, for instance, or managing arthritis. “Our job is to assist people in accomplishing all they want to accomplish,” said McQueeney.

818.700.2971 or 805.375.9078.

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