Healing Horses - Equine Therapy Creating Miracles
Nine years ago Teressa Tucker and her husband relocated to Charlotte from California seeking a better quality of life for their two children. Within weeks of their arrival that quality changed in a way they never dreamed of: their son Cameron was diagnosed with autism at age two.
“He had severe sensory integration dysfunction, he was socially withdrawn, had unusual odd repetitive behaviors and a lot of frustrated screaming because he did not know how to communicate,” says Tucker, a former lawyer.
She did extensive research on autism including all treatments, diets, supplements, therapies and methodologies. Some helped and others didn’t, but one therapy made a profound affect – therapeutic horseback riding.
Tucker, a lifelong horse enthusiast, became a Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor and began working with Cameron. Within a year he said his first word. “Cameron was on the back of a horse when he said ‘Tess,’ ” recalls Tucker. “Tess was the name of the horse he was riding. I cried, because for the first time I could clearly hear my son say a word. That was the day that changed my life. Cameron was on his way.”
Therapeutic horseback riding, also known as Equine Assisted Therapy, can help individuals with a range of physical, emotional, cognitive and social disabilities. The process can be a very effective adjunct to treatment and may be beneficial for brain and spinal cord injuries, cerebal palsy, mental retardation, muscular dystrophy, MS, learning disabilities and much more.
This experiential therapy teaches people about themselves, offers recognition of dysfunctional behavior patterns and defines healthy relationships. Horses are typically non-judgmental and without expectations or motives. Therefore, a rider can practice congruency without fear of rejection. The horse assists in making riders aware of their emotional state as the horse responds in reaction to their behavior. Through working with the horse, riders can gain insight into their feelings, patterns, behaviors, boundaries and stumbling blocks to recovery. Listening, communication and social skills can be enhanced and self-esteem can blossom.
Building a relationship with a horse is very rewarding on many levels. The loyalty and trust of the horse demonstrates to the student how important they are and these attributes may extend to personal relationships. To learn how to care for and ride a horse, a student must be able to communicate effectively with the horse and instructor. In this way, riding is a social activity but is less daunting to those uncomfortable in social situations.
In contrast, the experience of riding a horse is very different. Riding helps empower people and facilitates a connection on a personal level. The occasional unpredictable nature of horses and situations creates a real-life environment. Students learn to confront fears and make adjustments to circumstances beyond their control.
Joy Simon, director of Mitey Riders in Waxhaw, says the physical movement of a horse simulates the natural walk of a human by passively stimulating the muscle groups of the rider. “The cognitive part of horse interaction encourages attention span, small and large motor sensory skills, muscle tone, proper posture, spatial awareness and center of balance, all while becoming a partner with the horse,” she states.
Simon notes that the trainers get tremendous satisfaction from watching the partnerships between horse and rider form and witnessing the progressions they make as a team while riding as well as applying it to everyday life.
Miracles are commonplace at Mitey Riders. “A beautiful little girl came to us after her doctors told her parents that she would never walk without assistance,” says Simon. “Many years later with much devotion and hard work she now balances her body, walking without any assistance and riding with natural balance totally unassisted. She has made such great strides that we plan to enter her in a horse show in the very near future.”
Since 1969, the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) has provided Equine Assisted Activity and Therapy programs in the United States and Canada through its network of nearly 800 member centers. Each year, dozens of new centers initiate new programs and more than 38,000 individuals with disabilities benefit from activities which include therapeutic riding, hippotherapy, equine assisted psychotherapy, driving, interactive vaulting and competition.
Tucker has since started Kids Rein, non-profit organization that offers therapeutic horseback riding for individuals with varying disabilities, located in Northern Charlotte. Cameron is now 10 years old and in a regular 4th grade classroom getting A’s and B’s.
“He’s doing great,” says Tucker. “He has friends at school and everyone loves him. Therapeutic riding works for my kid and it can work for others.”
Local Resources for Equine Assisted Therapy
www.KidsRein.com 704-701-4711 North Charlotte
www.WingsofEaglesRanch.org 704-784-3147 Concord
www.MiteyRiders.com 704~841~0602 Waxhaw
www.SavingGraceFarm.com 704-638-2339 Salisbury
www.ShiningHopeFarms.org 704-827-3788 Mt. Holley
www.CalicosHaven.com 704-361-6671 Huntersville
www.lifespanservices.org/programs-and-services/enrichment/farm-theraputic-riding-center/ 704-393-0333 Northwest Charlotte