- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 15, 2006

Six-year-old Emily Krieger pulls at her riding gloves as she tells her mother about her horseback riding lesson. “I like trotting ‘cuz it’s fun. You have to hold the reins,” says the girl dressed in jodhpurs, paddock boots and a velvet-covered helmet.

But “fun” is not the reason Emily’s mother, Alex Krieger, of Woodstock, Md., signed up Emily for private lessons at Therapeutic & Recreational Riding Center (TRCC), a nonprofit 55-acre working farm in Glenwood, Md. Emily has a mild case of spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, and the Kriegers had heard therapeutic riding could help.

TRCC provides two types of riding therapy on horseback hippotherapy, as do other riding centers in the Washington area. Therapeutic riding adjusts lessons to the needs of children and adults with disabilities, while hippotherapy uses the horse as a treatment tool in physical and occupational therapy. Hippotherapy is covered by some health insurance plans, while both types of therapy, which can cost more than $100 per lesson, also can be covered by scholarships.. .

“The kids don’t consider it therapy,” says Helen Tuel, founding director of TRCC, which provides therapeutic riding for 150 students a week and recreational riding for those without disabilities. “They think of it as a riding lesson,” she says.

Emily went through four months of hippotherapy, followed by three months of private lessons in therapeutic riding when she built up enough strength to post while the horse trotted. This month, she moved up to group lessons.

“It’s helped. We definitely can see a difference,” Mrs. Krieger says.

Emily often fell down and walked toe to heel, but now is walking heel to toe and has improved in her ability to walk, Mrs. Krieger says. Emily also has undergone physical therapy.

“She’s always been one of those children who doubts herself. This has helped her self-confidence, feeling like she’s doing something important,” Mrs. Krieger says.

Equine-facilitated therapy is geared toward those with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities, including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, brain and spinal cord injuries, mental retardation, learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder.

“Horseback riding gently and rhythmically moves the rider’s body in a manner similar to the human gait. So when you put somebody on the horse, in order to keep their balance and be able to ride, they have to move their entire body,” says Andrea Spridgen, spokeswoman for the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA), a membership organization based in Denver that promotes equine-facilitated therapy in the United States and Canada. “It improves muscle tone, posture, balance, coordination and motor development,” she says.

In therapeutic riding, a trained riding instructor provides lessons to students with special needs, either individually or in a group, using specially designed stretches, exercises and games. The instructor teaches horseback riding skills and basic horse care at each student’s level. The students can use specially designed equipment, such as saddles and reins, for the lessons.

“My goals for each rider are completely different,” says Breeana Bornhorst, program director of the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program, which operates on a 5-acre farm in Fairfax with classes from March to December. She is a master-level instructor certified by the NARHA. “The main goal is to help the riders become as independent as they possibly can,” she says.

Hippotherapy, alternatively, is part of an overall treatment plan provided by physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech language pathologists, Mrs. Spridgen says. Specific riding skills are not taught, but exercises using a horse’s movements are integrated into the therapy to improve a student’s neurological functioning and sensory processing, she says.

The exercises might place the student in a crawling position or sitting sideways or backward on the horse to work different muscles and build strength and stamina, Ms. Tuel says.

“For the physically disabled, you’re using muscles you normally don’t use. It’s not something you can create in a clinical situation,” says Joanne Hart, program director of Loudoun Therapeutic Riding Foundation Inc., a riding center that offers therapeutic riding from April to November at the Morven Park International Equestrian Event Center in Leesburg, Va.

The Loudoun Therapeutic Riding Foundation works with 85 students a year, providing horseback riding lessons, some of them with trail rides. The trail rides offer a sensory experience for the students as they ride up and down hills and through open fields in the 1,200-acre park, Mrs. Hart says.

“There is a lot of sensory input when riding because of the movement, and because all your different senses are being used,” she says. “That’s the thing that stimulates the brain and the nerves.”

Lessons provided through the Loudoun Therapeutic Riding Foundation last about one hour and include mounting the horse, stretching, playing a game and learning riding skills, such as how to guide and control the horse and do sitting and posting trotting. As needed, volunteers lead the horse and walk alongside to provide a safety net for the riders in case of a slip or fall.

“It’s a moving platform, so the child has to adjust to balance,” says Ms. Tuel, who holds a doctorate in education.

Horseback riding teaches spatial awareness and how to center the body on the horse, Ms. Tuel says.

For students who are not able to walk, the horse’s movements stimulate the muscles used in walking, while those who move with asymmetrical movements, such as with cerebral palsy, learn what symmetrical movement feels like, she says.

Equine-facilitated therapy gives those students who are unable to walk the opportunity to feel what it is like to do so, says Betsy Kimrey, development director for Maryland Therapeutic Riding Inc., a 25-acre therapy riding center in Crownsville, Md., that works with 150 students.

“They’re getting therapy and fresh air, and they’re loving every minute of it,” Mrs. Kimrey says.

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