Benefits of therapeutic horseback riding go beyond the ring

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From improving coordination and muscle development to building confidence and a sense of independence, the benefits of therapeutic horseback riding go beyond the ring.

Horseback riding is often seen as a fun, recreational sport, but it can be a useful tool to help people develop life skills and cope with challenges.

“We have one student who has gene deletion and was completely in a wheelchair three to four years ago when he started riding,” said LaRue Sprouse-Dowd, executive director of Heartland Horse Heroes in Buckingham County. “Now he’s got ankle braces and walks a lot.”

She noted a horse’s rocking motion mimics the human gait and can strengthen a rider’s core muscles and balance, which helps in the transition to walking.

Therapeutic riding is designed to positively impact the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of individuals—particularly those with special needs. It has wide applications and can provide new developmental and recreational opportunities. Lessons typically incorporate exercises like ring-tosses and sensory trails to enhance motor skills and encourage riders’ interaction with the world around them.

It also helps people with verbalization and communication, Sprouse-Dowd added.

“We had a student who did not talk in school, and she came out here and would ask me all sorts of questions,” Sprouse-Dowd said. “She just opened up and wanted to know all about her pony.”

Additionally, students learn about horse care through grooming, feeding and understanding how horses think. Carol Branscome, executive director of Hoofbeats Therapeutic Riding Center in Lexington, says this builds empathy and a bond between rider and horse, which can help with mental illnesses like depression.

“People who come here are oftentimes very cut off from others, and the horses act like a bridge for those people,” Branscome said. “If you can learn to trust the horse, and you feel good when you’re grooming the horse … that’s enough to heal.”

Julie Hollingsworth made that connection with her horse, Spirit. She learned to ride at Hoofbeats several years ago to feel closer to her oldest daughter, who had been a rider before she died from a rare form of cancer.

“I did it not only for her, but I’m doing it for myself, too, because it has begun to fill a hole in me,” Hollingsworth said.

Julie Williamson, a Culpeper County equestrian and member of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Equine Advisory Committee, added that therapeutic riding also gives horses a new purpose, especially if they’re older or were previously injured.

“These therapeutic riding programs have been a wonderful way for some really awesome horses to prolong their lives,” Williamson said. “They don’t need much from you. Give them a treat, be nice to them and they give back so much.”


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