Therapeutic horseback riding is a form of therapy that helps people with different disabilities in many ways.
Patti Gillham is a therapeutic horseback riding instructor and owner at Green Acres Riding Center in Jamesport, Missouri. Gillham works with people with up to 12 different kinds of disabilities, and tailors each session to each disability. She also works with physical therapists, schools and teachers to make sure the therapy is meeting each rider’s needs.
“We work very closely with their physical therapist and the school and the parents,” Gillham said. “They pretty much let us know what the things are that need to be worked on.”
The goals of each lesson are specific to the needs of the client.
“We had an autistic client here who is physically fine,” Gillham said. “Our goal with him is for him to be able to control his movements and his impulses.”
Even though this program can be helpful for most disabilities, Gillham says there are a few disabilities that they (Green Acres) cannot work with.
“One of them is called Brittle Bone Disease,” Gillham said. “It’s where somebody, without falling down or getting hit, can break a bone, and we are not allowed to do that because the last thing you want to do is, you know, hurt somebody.”
Gillham said the client’s physician has to approve of the therapy program and that many physicians send their patients to participate in therapeutic horseback riding because they see the benefits of the program.
“I have had some Cerebral Palsy clients that we were working with,” Gillham said. “The horse’s movements mimic our hips almost exactly … (the horses) will move the rider’s hips in the same way they move when they walk, and you can get it into their muscle memory. If you can get it into their muscle memory and let them walk, they know what it is supposed to feel like.”
The process to be certified for therapeutic horseback riding is rigorous according to Gillham. Her certification is through Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International. It requires a strong knowledge of horses, a working knowledge of disabilities and the ability to teach. It took Gillham about a year to get her certification, and she must continue her education every year with riding lessons and workshops about disabilities.
At a workshop she attended in Kansas, Gilham said she had to take the written test, perform, ride and then teach a class.
Gillham has one paid employee and about 12 volunteers who help with the program.
“You cannot do this program without volunteers,” Gillham said.
Paige Hofmeister, sophomore nursing major at MU, is a volunteer at Cedar Creek Riding Center in Columbia, Missouri. Hofmeister has been volunteering once a week for about a year and a half. She heard about Cedar Creek through word of mouth and thought it was something she would be interested in.
“My mom was a special education teacher,” Hofmeister said. “So I automatically had an interest in helping these kids.”
Before deciding on a nursing major, Hofmeister had considered occupational therapy. Couple that with her love of horses, and therapeutic horseback riding allowed her to put her favorite things together.”
The classes she helps with usually have between eight and 13 people. Hofmeister is usually a side walker..
“So I just walk next to them,” Hofmeister said. “And hold on to their leg and make sure they do not fall off or anything, and help them as needed … with their exercises and just talk to them.”
Hofmeister enjoys working with the people at Cedar Creek the most.
“You know, working with the riders they make it really fun,” Hofmeister said. “Especially when they are really talkative. You know you can tell that it really helps them and it’s something they really enjoy.”
There are challenges that come with therapeutic horseback riding. For Hofmeister, the challenges can vary.
“Maybe the horse doesn’t want to work with you, or the weather can get in the way, or the rider may be having a hard time that day or just really doesn’t want to do the exercises,” Hofmeister said.
Gillham said the most challenging part of the job for her is the administrative responsibilities and finding volunteers.
“Before every season I go visit the ag classes, FFA groups and that kind of thing,” Gillham said. “I have got a couple of volunteers that have been with me from the first time I started. And when you get volunteers, you want to make sure they are going to be dependable, and that they are going to show up.”
There are some riders who really depend upon therapeutic horseback riding. Lexi Meyer started therapeutic horseback riding when she was 2 years old and rode until she was about 9 years old when her school stopped the funding for the program. Lexi has Presynaptic Myasthenic Syndrome. Her mother, Tracy Meyer, said horseback riding helped improve her posture and tactile function. By the time she was 9, she also had fewer hospital visits. Tracy believes therapeutic horseback riding was beneficial for her daughter.
“We did lots of therapy,” Meyer said. “If I could go back in time I would pay for that (therapeutic horseback riding).”