Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Disabled Find Freedom on Horseback

By Susan Logue
Clifton, Virginia
16 June 2009

Laura Gregg, 13, can't talk or see. She spends most of her life in a wheelchair, but once a week she leaves the chair to sit atop a horse. With one volunteer leading the horse and one on either side to make sure she doesn't fall, she slowly moves around the riding ring.
"It is Laura's opportunity, one day a week, to feel what it is to walk again," says her mother. Karen Gregg has been bringing her daughter here since she was six years old and says she notices a change in Laura after a session. "Her muscles are usually either extremely tight or extremely loose. A child with cerebral palsy, as Laura is, can't control this." Greg says that riding the horse helps relax Laura's muscles that are tight and strengthens muscles that need to be strengthened.

Laura is one of 85 students with special needs who participate once a week in the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program, which has been offering these classes since 1980.

Riders with different challenges say they benefit

"We have some people who have physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy," says Executive Director Breeana Bornhorst. "We have some people who have cognitive or intellectual disabilities, for example, autism, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, Down Syndrome, any number of different challenges."

Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program is one of more than 700 such programs in the U.S. It has been offering these classes since 1980.

Samuel Selnick, 16, has Down Syndrome. "Like most people with Down Syndrome, he tends to have low muscle tone, says his mother, Barbara. "Riding benefits him, because you work on your core muscles." Selnick says Samuel's posture has definitely improved over the four years she has been bringing him here.

There are more than 700 therapeutic riding programs in the United States alone. Bornhorst says there is a need for more research to quantify the benefits of therapeutic riding that she sees every day. Parents and students are already convinced that these sessions make a difference.

Jennifer Hendrick says horses make the best physical therapists
Jennifer Hendrick, 19, suffered four massive strokes that left her paralyzed on one side. Before taking sessions here, she went through more traditional physical therapy. "I was stable enough to get around on my own, but this has doubled the strengthening, doubled the work and doubled the fun."

And it's that sense of fun - not just the physical improvement - that keeps Hendrick and the others returning to the riding ring week after week to work with their four legged therapists.