Horses Helping People Or Equine Assisted Therapy

This is the third in a series of interviewing professionals in the area of Autism, Aspergers and related conditions

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Horses Helping People Or Equine Assisted Therapy

by Lynn Marshall

It has been said that the relationship between human beings and horses is one of the most ancient and mutually beneficial relationships between man and animal to ever exist on our planet. This has certainly proven true but especially so in the field of Therapeutic Riding. A famous saying among horse lovers and attributed to Sir Winston Churchill goes, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of man”.  Most horses will typically put out special effort for riders with a disability. It is always exciting to see or hear of a child who couldn’t or wouldn’t talk make sounds and formulate words or speak for the very first time while on a horse.  Riders develop physically, mentally and emotionally. The horse seems to bring out the very best in riders, lift their spirits and give them confidence. The horse seems to sense that there is a special person on them. It is also exciting to see a child who could barely hold their head up for a few moments when they begin a program at a Therapeutic Riding Centre, after some time actually sit up and rider for an entire lesson.

Despite many years involved with riding internationally, I was still personally moved recently in witnessing a “first” in one of the aspects of my sport. This was at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky where athletes with a physical disability competed for the first time as part of the regular event schedule. The games, which serve as the world championships for the eight disciplines of equestrian sport, were for the first time, held outside of Europe in the beautiful state of Kentucky which some refer to as “horse heaven”.  I was privileged to accompany the Canadian Para-dressage team as a coach and was inspired by these remarkable athletes. Sixteen countries were represented.

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It was amazing to see so many athletes of different abilities competing. Many had overcome horrific accidents that have left them missing a limb or limbs.  Others were born with Cerebral Palsy, Visual Impairment and different  other conditions. 16-year-old Danish rider Stinna Tange Kaastrup, who was born without legs, particularly inspired me.  I asked her how she became involved with riding. She mentioned that a friend who rode at a Therapeutic Riding Centre one day said: “Come and see me ride”. And for her that was it. Her climb to fame began in a Therapeutic Riding Centre. She won a bronze medal for her country at such a young age. In her first competition at the Games her pony slipped, coming down onto its front knees.  Stinna bravely stayed in the saddle without the support of her legs. She is not tied in the saddle at all, but rides by keeping herself well balanced. When her pony slipped the spectators gasped quietly in horror, but Stinna seemed only concerned that her pony had not hurt himself. She is a remarkable teenager. She told me, “Life isn’t over because you have lost a leg or an arm or if life has handed you some very difficult circumstance. You can continue being you, the unique person that you are, and most of all be happy in spite of what you face.

I asked her what she would say to someone going thru a really tough time in his or her life.

“Don’t ever give up. Keep trying and in the long run it will work out. You may feel you are stuck, but think of it as only a bump (or a ditch at times!) in the road. Every cloud has a silver lining if we can just persevere.

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It is an incredible service that Therapeutic Riding Centres offer in improving the lives of those brave souls who refuse to let their disabilities limit them. Therapeutic Riding, also known as Equine Assisted Therapy,  uses the horse to achieve a variety of therapeutic aims, including cognitive, physical, social, educational and behavioral goals. One of the first studies on the value of riding as a therapy was reported in 1875 when a French physician used riding as a treatment for a variety of conditions. Therapeutic riding is practiced in some form now all around the world. It benefits individuals with all types of conditions including, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Visual Impairment, Multiple Sclerosis, Emotional Disabilities, Brain Injuries, Amputations, Learning Disabilities, Spina Bifida, Attention Deficit Disorder and many others.  It calms emotions and boosts the morale of children and adults and gives a positive self image, sense of responsibility and self-confidence – qualities that serve them well as they meet their challenges in life. With autism, horses have helped many children improve their speech and social skills as Equine Therapy offers a safe, secure environment . Children who rarely smiled are suddenly calmer and smile more readily and children who isolate themselves become more open. They will often make eye contact with the animal first and then with other people. Horses seem to be able to recognise when someone is really genuine and not just taking advantage of them and see in autistic children something that makes them trust the child and will often go out of their way to help.  The rhythmic motion of riding a horse is very relaxing and as children focus on the movement, they themselves learn to focus better within themselves. With children, horses can act as a buffer to a child’s traumatic experience – helping children express emotions– resulting in more coping strategies and reducing posttraumatic stress reactions.

I have the greatest admiration for Therapeutic Riding Centres who have the vision to see that working with those who need equine assistance helps them to obtain the maximum of their capabilities. What an awesome service to have a part in giving others an elevated quality of life.

About the Author

A certified Equine Canada coach and Dressage judge, Lynn Marshall has an extensive equestrian background. Lynn has also taught riding for the disabled in Australia and has served as an equestrian coach in five different countries. “I have been inspired to see how riders with a physical disability or neurological condition not only manage their life concerns, but are also motivated to competitively ride as ‘best they can be.’

Watch on YouTube 2011 Para Dressage clinic with Lynn Marshall:

About Para-Equestrian Canada
Para-Equestrian Canada is the Equine Canada committee responsible for developing programs for athletes with a physical disability, and implementing the Para-Dressage high performance program. Para-Equestrian is one of Canada’s most successful international disciplines, achieving an individual gold medal and an individual silver medal at the 2008 Paralympic Games, as well as two individual bronze medals at the 2004 Paralympic Games.

About Para-Equestrian Sport
Para-Equestrian sport provides riders with a physical disability the opportunity to compete against other riders with similar abilities. Riders are given a “Grade” based on their functional ability, and are judged on their riding skill against other athletes of the same Grade. There are five grades of competitions in dressage, with Grade IA representing the more severely impaired riders, and Grade IV representing the least severely impaired riders. Many Para-Equestrian athletes also compete alongside able-bodied competitors in Equine Canada competitions. At the grass roots level, Para-Equestrian encompasses a number of different disciplines, while the international stream focuses only on Para-Dressage. For more information, please visit www.equinecanada.ca/para-equestrian.

About Equine Canada
Equine Canada is Canada’s national governing body for equestrianism. A member-driven, charitable institution, it is the executive branch of the Canadian Equestrian Team, and the national authority for equestrian competition; the national voice for recreational riders; and the national association for equine welfare, breeding, and industry. Equine Canada is recognised by the Government of Canada, the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), and the Canadian Olympic Committee as the national organisation representing equestrian sport and equine interests. For more information about Equine Canada, please visit www.equinecanada.ca.

Tania Marshall©. 2013. Interview Professional Series. All rights reserved. Duplication in whole or part is explicitly forbidden. Thank you.

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