Therapeutic Horseback Riding

"Sari Therapeutic Riding"
Ainsley at Sari Therapeutic Riding

I never tire of this.

It’s the end of the season and, after this week, the horses get a much deserved break at SARI therapeutic riding in Arva, just north of London, Ontario. My daughter, 10, is on her horse Vixen, rounding the corners of the outdoor ring, doing two point. Basically she’s squeezing her legs and sitting tall in the saddle as Vixen rhythmically trots. She is proud, therefore I am proud, and I can’t resist the urge to praise her.

“Great job,” I tell her and she continues on with her final lesson of the year. Another girl she rides with is stuck. Her horse won’t budge right now. The horse this girl rides has a reputation for being gentle but he also has a bit of attitude at times.

"Sari Therapeutic Riding"
Marshmallow, one of Sari’s therapy horses.

“Tell her walk on louder,” Ainsley says and the other horse follows her instructions. The other child is now moving confidently. Pride is a hopeful balloon in my chest. My girl is strong enough in this skill set to be able to help another child with special needs.

This is the fourth year my daughter has been doing this therapy riding program. My daughter has sensory processing disorder and FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder). She was prenatally exposed to various substances prior to her adoption. Her brain was damaged by the prenatal exposures she was subject to when inside birth mom’s stomach. The first couple of years we sailed through parenting without much need for extra education. Our daughter seemed healthy, happy and developmentally on target. But then the sensory issues became apparent. Lights, sounds, changes, transitions could all trigger big meltdowns. Learning difficulties happen and are increasingly apparent as she gets older, and she simply can’t manage her emotions in many situations.

"Sari Therapeutic Riding"

When my daughter was little I did a great deal of research on the types of therapies that work for her disability. I learned that animals are often very useful as therapy tools and horses are routinely used in many of the western Canadian provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia where knowledge of FASD seems to have surpassed that of Ontario. I traveled to Alberta and BC to learn more. When I returned home, I searched out Sari therapeutic riding program.

"Sari Therapeutic Riding" horseback
Happy on horseback at Sari Therapeutic Riding program.

SARI therapeutic riding was started in 1978. It is the closest therapy riding program to our city. Sari is a therapy riding program for children with special needs. There are some young adults and even one adult who still rides in the program. There are numerous volunteers who handle a complex range of physical and mental disabilities. There is almost always a lengthy waiting list to get into the program.

I signed my daughter up when she was 3 or 4 and we waited for her to be accepted. Before that first lesson she was assessed by an occupational therapist to be sure the right number of volunteers were placed with her. The intake forms were also signed by a doctor, to make sure she was eligible for this activity. Ainsley and I were both excited and a bit nervous when she first mounted her horse. She was 6. She was one of the younger riders and she rode a small Pinto named Cookie. The nerves slowly went away – for both of us.

"Sari Therapeutic Riding"
Therapy horses must be patient and quiet.

When Ainsley started she was serious and quiet but she mounted the horse every week and took direction from the riding instructor. She learned to modulate her voice to the right tone so the horse responded to her command. She gained confidence and even attempted a competition. Ainsley won second place in her category. She was the smallest one in the picture of the winner’s circle. Over time Ainsley’s volunteer side riders were able to ease up a bit. One by one they were able to fade away so that she can now ride with only one volunteer. The side walkers help the horses to stay on task. The therapy horses are generally all retired ponies and some are retired show horses. They each have lengthy assessments and training to be sure they are gentle enough for the riders here. Some riders have extremely complex physical needs. The horses can’t spook easily.

Over time Ainsley has become more confident riding here at Sari. I enjoy seeing her succeed at this task. Riding is good physical activity. Ainsley has many friends at Sari and her confidence has grown. Therapy riding has so many benefits: it can help children with disabilities to grow self esteem, grow communication skills and it can challenge them physically. It builds core strength and nurtures emotional regulation skills. These horses don’t respond if you don’t give them strong, but controlled cues. Throughout the process the riders also learn how to groom their horses and sometimes they happily embrace learning how to muck a stall and saddle up. They sweep, or clean hooves, do day camps and summer riding shows.

"Sari Therapeutic Riding" horse
Therapeutic riding horse, Dickens.

One of Ainsley’s close friends used to be terrified of horses. The sounds they made triggered a massive sensory response and she would cringe and hide. Hers is one of the biggest transformations I have seen since Ainsley started riding. This lovely child who used to want to run away from the stable is now happy on her horse, challenging herself to perform, while banishing fear. There’s something slightly magical about that.

This is a guest post by Paula Schuck who writes at Thrifty Mommas Tips. She is a mother of two. Both of her girls sometimes still ride at SARI, near London, Ontario in Canada. Horse lovers follow Luxury Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown on Twitter @nancydbrown and Paula Schuck @inkscrblr.

For additional information contact Sari.
Individual horse photos by Tanya Harrison.