Horse Therapy — Gallop Your Way To Good Health

Circa 2007

The Atlantic Riding Center for the Handicapped (ARCH) was created 13 years ago to improve the lives of people with disabilities through horseback riding. The non-profit organization, based in Egg Harbor Township, NJ, features a huge indoor ring with wheelchair access, along with an 18-stall horse barn and a grooming area for the animals. Both children and adults who have the ability to mount and sit astride the horses—with or without assistance—can enjoy weekly sessions led by ARCH-certified instructors. In 2006, more than 250 people benefited from this unusual therapy.

Recently, editor-in-chief Chet Cooper met with Sue Adams, executive director of the non-profit organization, and Jill Baxter, director of its extension and volunteer services. He got the story straight from Adams, Baxter and the horses’ mouths.

Chet Cooper: Tell me more about who uses your services.

Sue Adams: We work with people from two years old up to senior citizens who have had strokes or are debilitated for one reason or another.

Jill Baxter: And sometimes people who have been in accidents.

CC: How many horses do you have?

SA: We have 12 now. It fluctuates. We’re going to look at another horse next week, and there’s one down in Maryland that somebody wants to donate to us. So our needs will determine whether we bring them in or not, as well as whether they’re acceptable. They have to go through very rigorous training to be considered a therapy horse.

CC: How long has this facility been here?

SA: Five years. Though we owned the grounds several years before that, our facility was housed at the farm next door for 13 years, until this property became available. It was purchased around 1995, but it took another five or six years to get the money together, get the right mortgage and put plans in place to move operations here.

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We also visited different states to check out their facilities so that we could avoid making mistakes. We’re very happy with everything we have. It’s very efficient for the size of the property.

CC: Tell me about the therapy you offer.

SA: We do therapeutic horseback riding, through which we work on the rider’s posture, balance and concentration. And we do it through instructors who are nationally certified and know the proper techniques to use. We improve the whole person—body, mind and spirit.

A number of programs also utilize hippotherapy, which is from hippos, the Greek word for horse. We were involved in hippotherapy many years ago, and we’re working on coming back to it. But it must be done by occupational, physical or recreational therapists. The difference between therapeutic horseback riding and hippotherapy, I always say, is the difference between a general practitioner and a surgeon.

A general practitioner learns about surgery during the course of his or her education, but a surgeon knows the specifics. Who would you go to if you needed an operation? So it’s the same thing. Certified instructors have the knowledge of the muscles and the skeleton, and react to the horse’s movement. But the therapist manipulates the muscles to enhance the effect of the horse on the human. It’s actually considered a medical treatment. The therapist has to know the horse—how it moves, how it affects the rider’s body. Our certified instructors will ask clients to shift their body one way or another, but our therapists know how to put their fingers in a certain place to produce that effect, often helping a person to sit taller in the saddle. I think of it almost like chiropractic work.

CC: Do you have any programs within the mentalhealth arena?

SB: Not right now. That would be the Equine Facilitative Mental Health Association. They have psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers. They treat clients with emotional, behavioral, social, mental, physical and/or spiritual needs through the use of horse therapy. They achieve breakthroughs and solve problems in half the time of traditional clinical settings.

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CC: Who taught the horse how to heal people? [laughs]

SA: It’s very interesting because the horse is really at the forefront of these breakthroughs. I think dogs and cats and other animals are wonderful. But the horse is so large, and its movement simulates the human walk. If you put someone on a horse who doesn’t know how to walk yet, their hips start to move naturally. Their brains start to pattern. We’ve had cases where children who have ridden for as few as three months, get off their horse and start to walk. So it’s the movement of the horse that’s so extremely important in the healing and the changes in the riders.

CC: What’s the history of horses and therapy?

SA: Funny you should ask. I just did a segment on a local television channel where we talked about that. Hundreds of years ago during wartime, the only way to transport wounded soldiers from the field to the doctors’ tents was by horseback. Sometimes it would take two or three days. They would find that from having the wounded soldiers astride a horse, there was measurable improvement in their condition by the time they got to their destination.

I always ask therapists involved in hippotherapy and clinical therapy, “Do you find that patients progress faster with horse therapy or traditional clinical therapy?” And the answer is always horse therapy.

CC: Are there any scientific studies on this?

SA: I’m sure there are. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association could tell you. But it makes sense if you consider the fact that when you’re sitting on a horse, because of the constant motion, it is stimulating every muscle in your body, including your mind. On the other hand, when you’re in a clinical setting, you may be on a ball that moves only your hips, or just one part of your body. That’s why the jockey is the most physically fit athlete.

JB: A horse shifts every which way, constantly. It could be side to side, up and down, backwards and forwards. With a horse you do have some control, but it’s a thinking being. So, you also have to work with the horse as well.

CC: Tell me about the Horses for Heroes program.

SA: It’s a therapeutic horseback-riding program for injured and disabled war veterans. We are one of only about six such facilities in the country that is doing something with our veterans. The project is Jill’s baby.

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JB: I read about the first efforts in Virginia, and I thought it was a brilliant idea. We have two horses now that would be suitable for soldiers.

CC: Why just two? Is it because the animals are larger?

SA: The horse chosen for any given therapy is tied to the weight and height of the rider. If you have someone who is 300 pounds and 4 foot 2, the horse would carry that person differently than somebody who’s 6 foot 4 and 300 pounds. Every horse we have can handle 20 percent of its weight.

There are other considerations: You don’t want to take somebody who’s jittery and put them on a horse that moves a lot and is full of energy. You want to put them on a horse that’s laid-back, has a slower, shorter stride, and would relax them. You’d want a horse with a very wide base for somebody who doesn’t have balance, as opposed to a narrow horse that you might use for somebody who has a physical disability and might not be able to spread their legs so far.

CC: So, you wouldn’t say that a horse has a big butt just big bones?

SA: (laughs) We hope all our horses have muscular rears.

JB: We have two Fjords that are short and stocky, and built to carry men and women. So, they’re good. It’s easy to help people if the horse is lower to the ground. The taller the horse, say with a draft breed, the better the rider has to be.

CC: What’s a draft breed?

SA: The kind of horse that plows a field.

JB: In the circus, the (percheron) vaulting horses are an example.

SA: The horses the Amish use are all drafts. They’re big-boned and well-rounded. Most of them are very tall. So if you have somebody who’s very unbalanced, unless you had a walker that was over six feet tall beside them, you wouldn’t put anybody unbalanced up there. The veteran’s group that’s coming to us in September will, of course, be matched to horses that suit their needs. Jill, are most of them in wheelchairs?

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JB: Many. Most of them are older soldiers from The Veterans Memorial Hospital in Vineland. I think we’ll have around 10 people. Some of them, due to their age or disability, won’t be able to ride, but they can groom the horses or just be around them. Even grooming is therapeutic: It stimulates muscles and gets people mentally and emotionally involved. There are vets who are fine physically, but hurting emotionally. Time spent caring for a horse can help soothe the wounds. Just knowing they can help another being can help vets feel better about themselves and help draw them back into society.

SA: What’s wonderful about this program is that the volunteers working with the wounded soldiers will all be veterans themselves. A number are already trained and have been doing this for a long time. We support the notion of “No soldier left behind.”

CC: Is your outreach mainly through word of mouth?

SA: That’s part of it. Media coverage also helps, as do referrals: Many of the medical professionals in the area, including therapists, recommend us to their patients.

JB: A major push for us right now is getting the word out about the Horses for Heroes program through our contacts with Memorial Hospital. We want people to know that we’re here if they need help.

SA: Though there are veterans in the area, there are no veteran’s hospitals in our general vicinity, so we look to vet’s organizations such as the American Legion and the Veteran of Foreign Wars to help us contact people who might need our services.

CC: You alluded to getting the soldiers involved in volunteering.

SA: Sure. I think it’s really important. I don’t think any of them want to think that they’re forgotten because they’ve been wounded. It’s just like with our regular program here. We get a lot of our volunteers from our rider base. If their disability still allows them to volunteer, they’re in the barn with everybody else, grooming the horses and getting them ready for the lessons. So it’s been nice.

[Chet Cooper is introduced to some of the horses and proper riding techniques.]

CC: Sometimes, when you watch a person ride a horse in the old Westerns, you’ll see they’re as smooth as silk.

JB: Quarter horses are like that, like Roy Rogers’ Tennessee Walker.

SA: A Tennessee Walker has no trot. A trot is a two-beat gait where diagonal legs go together, and that’s what causes concussion. If you don’t know how to go up and down with the rhythm, it’s very jarring. But Tennessee Walkers have a four-beat gait, which is like a walk. It’s a one-two-three-four, and they do it at a very rapid speed that is so smooth that you could drink champagne off their backs at about five miles an hour.

CC: So it’s the gait of the horse and…

SA: …the ability of the rider. If you’re on a horse and you panic, the first thing you do is press into the stirrups. What does that do? It tells your horse to go faster. If you’re trying to do what we call a sit-trot to a trot, where it’s going one-two, one-two and there’s a lot of concussion, if you don’t relax and what I call “couch-potato,” so your body can move in rhythm, you start to get this pounding motion, and that’s because your body becomes rigid and you don’t relax to let your body flow with the horse. That’s what it’s all about. In a panicked state, if you either stand up in your stirrups, or go into what I call the fetal position, you’ll be off the horse. It’s all in what you do with your feet and your body.

CC: So it’s bad to stand on the stirrups…

SA: If you stand up in your stirrups, everything tightens around your horse. If you’re in a panicked state and he’s already going, he’s going to go faster. But if you stand right above your horse and you’re relaxed, then the horse just moves underneath you, and he’s got all the freedom he needs without being interfered with.

JB: That’s what jockeys do… Here’s one of the horses that we were thinking of for the program, this black horse, Hank. He’s a Percheron-quarter-horse cross.

SA: Quarter horses are shorter. Percherons are these monster-big horses. He came out to be short and stocky, so he’s perfect for one of our soldiers.

CC: If that’s a quarter horse, I’d hate to see a threequarter horse. (laugher as a rider approaches) Is that part of the therapy?

SA: Yes. This little girl has arthritis. She was in remission, and then she just came out of remission. She started with a leader and side walkers helping her, and she just has this wonderful ability, so she became an independent rider. That’s the goal for as many of our riders as possible, where you don’t need a leader or side walkers.

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SA: This is O’Malley. He’s 31 and our oldest horse.

JB: He was donated to the program and has been working hard for us.

CC: Do horses ever bite?

SA: All horses can bite and kick. We try to select horses that don’t. But whether they’re nipping or not, if they’re really good we can accommodate them by using a muzzle. Once they get to our center, none of them are ever fed by hand. That’s because somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who’s not horse-savvy may want to touch the nose or around the mouth. Because these horses never associate food with the hand, it’s a safer environment for our riders.

CC: So they don’t bite the hand that feeds them.

SA: (laughs) We hope not… This is our smallest horse, our pony. His name is Cocamocha Frappucino Fettuccini Alfredo.

CC: (laughs) Who named it that?

SA: It started with Cocamocha. Then it went to Frappucino. Then it went to Fettuccini Alfredo. I thought that I would add Tiramisu on the end.

JB: We do need dessert.

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