Horse therapy programs benefit children, adults

From left, Kimberly Gleason, Emily Chamberlain, and Sue Blackmore roam the grounds of the Brickhouse Equestrian Center, which houses Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding, on Johns Island.

“A horse is the projection of peoples’ dreams about themselves — strong, powerful, beautiful — and it has the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence.” — Pam Brown, writer

When she was just a year old, Caroline Ribes was diagnosed with dyspraxia, a developmental coordination disorder. Her mother, Cristine Ribes, describes it as a disconnect between the brain and the muscles, so Caroline’s brain is working harder to get messages to her muscles.

Physical therapy, along with speech and occupational therapy, have helped Caroline, but not quite in the same way as her time at Rein and Shine. At age 3, Caroline started riding with the Awendaw organization as part of its horseback riding therapy program.

“It was an amazing experience for her,” Ribes said of her daughter’s first session at Rein and Shine. “When she was 3, she couldn’t talk and could barely sit up on the horse. She knew sign language and would give the signs to the horse for ‘walk on’ and ‘whoa.’”

“The first time she trotted on the horse, she kept signing, ‘more, more, more,’” Ribes said.

A decade later, Caroline is still riding at Rein and Shine, where her weekly horseback sessions are her favorite activity. “It has helped her so much with coordination and balance and her speech,” her mother said. “She doesn’t consider it therapy at all.”

Caroline is one of about 40 children with special needs who find confidence, comfort and a connection with the horses at Rein and Shine each week. Another 20 teens from Wando High School’s special needs program also participate in horse therapy sessions.

Executive Director Catherine Tallman said for children with physical disabilities, especially those who use a wheelchair, riding a horse allows them to move in a way their own body doesn’t.

“It builds their core, balance, confidence and self-esteem,” she said. “For the first time, they can do a sport.”

Rein and Shine and Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding on Johns Island are accredited by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International or PATH. Another program on Wadmalaw Island, LEAP, provides equine-assisted psychotherapy, using horses and therapists to assist those with behavioral, emotional or psychological challenges.

Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding has been working with adults and children for 25 years. About 140 people pass through the saddles each year — some as young as 3 and others as old as 90, said Murray S. Neale, executive director.

Neale grew up riding horses, and when she was 15, had the chance to work with a girl who was blind. The experience started her on the path to equine therapy.

“Watching someone who is visually impaired, they never get to move through space with any sort of rhythm and velocity,” she said. “You get on the horse and you can get that input, you get that feeling and movement.”

Local organizations work primarily with children and teens, but adults and military veterans are turning to horse therapy, too. Among PATH’s international membership, the majority of those receiving therapy are 2 to 18 years old, but about 25 percent of participants range in age from 19 to 65 and older — proving equine therapy can benefit anyone at any age.

Rein and Shine is collaborating with the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston to launch its Horses for Heroes program, giving veterans the chance to participate in an eight-week session of equine-facilitated therapy, Tallman explained. Whether dealing with physical limitations, PTSD or depression, this program can help veterans heal physically and emotionally.

It takes a special kind of horse — patient, calm and tolerant — to work with special children and adults. People may assume old horses are better, but that’s not the case. Middle-aged horses, from ages 9 to about 15, are ideal.

“Having that even, steady movement on a strong back is really important for the adults and children who ride with us,” Neale said. “(The participants) are uneven and unbalanced so they rely on that (steady) movement.”

Horses are usually donated to these programs and undergo training and a trial period to ensure they would make good therapy horses. They need to able to tolerate loud noises, wheelchairs, multiple people walking alongside them and even riders with tight legs or who sit slightly unbalanced on the horse’s back.

When the right horse enters the program, it can make all the difference to the person in the saddle. Tallman said it’s so rewarding to see children respond and the progress they make.

“It gives you goose bumps and tears,” she said.

Cristine Ribes saw that bond firsthand.

“The horse is so big, but it’s almost like they have an unspoken connection,” she said. “Caroline is always hugging the horse, patting the horse and they are all so calm. They don’t mind stopping and going. I don’t know what it is, but an unspoken connection. The horse gets what the child needs.”