Horses often captivate children with their spirit and grace. But for some children, horses can also be a godsend. Children with physical disabilities, including autism, Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida (among others), as well as emotional and learning disabilities have been found to benefit from therapeutic riding. Riding can empower such children with a sense of accomplishment and independence.
The program at Maryland Therapeutic Riding (MTR) in Crownsville teaches riding skills to participants with physical, cognitive and/or emotional disabilities. MTR serves nearly 200 riders a year; the youngest participant is two years old. Horses are used as instructional tools to help riders achieve their goals. PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International certified instructors conduct all classes.
"To a child (or adult) with a physical, developmental, or emotional disability, life can look a lot brighter on horseback," says Kelly Rodgers, MTR's program director. "The power and warmth of the horse strengthens and tones muscles; improves balance, head control, and coordination; builds self-esteem; and offers a sense of freedom and equality. The benefits of therapeutic riding are often carried over into everyday life, directly improving participants' quality of life."
Parents report significant differences in their children, too. One mother told Rodgers that it gives her autistic son something "special and cool to participate in." Parents also report seeing their children open up more socially and engaging with other children.
Opportunities for social interaction are indeed an additional benefit of therapeutic riding. Riders develop meaningful relationships with the staff and volunteers. They also bond with a horse that makes them feel secure.
"There is something magical about horses," Rodgers says. "Through the healing power of horses, I have witnessed non-verbal children speak their first words, [have seen] children that wouldn't interact socially with anyone make friends, and have even seen a child take their first steps after riding."