Horses and the People They Help

If you aren't familiar with how horses are helping people, read on.

“I knew that is what I needed for my soul.”

Perri Wight Green of McLean was riding horses before she could talk. She tried out for the US Equestrian Olympic team in 1978, where she placed 16th. The first 12 made the team.

It was a freak horse accident that won her a trip to the emergency room and the shocking diagnosis of metastasized ovarian cancer. That diagnosis was followed by additional findings of four brain tumors. The tumors and their removal impacted her mobility and therefore her ability to ride. Four months in, she wanted to be back on a horse. "I knew that is what I needed for my soul."

It was a friend who introduced her to Sprout Therapeutic Riding and Education Center in Aldie, which allowed her to return to the joy of riding while rehabbing, and helped her keep muscles strong.

"I've lost strength and endurance," says Green since the pandemic and stay-at-home order kept her from getting to Sprout. Not riding had been a real set-back for her state of mind as well, but she has delighted in the online activities created by Sprout which have kept her inspired, connected and entertained during the shutdown.

Therapeutic riding and hippotherapy can be greatly beneficial for children and adults with challenges like those on the spectrum and with physical disabilities. The movement of a horse’s pelvis is tri-planar, mirroring the movement of a person walking. That means riding simulates walking, which causes the central nervous system to stimulate the muscles as if the rider him/herself is walking which can improve motor function and core strength.

A horse's body temperature is 1–2°F hotter than a human's temperature, which can help decrease muscle spasticity and hypertonicity.

The rider gets repetition, but not in a way that might be boring, as in a typical clinical setting with a balance ball. Clients are able to practice and refine balance responses on a horse, which leads to improvements in muscle control. And no surprise, riding a horse is far more motivating with the added benefit of expanding social network through interaction with not just the horse, but the team of instructors and volunteers.

“WATCHING PARENTS see their child doing something that they didn’t think they would ever be able to do...” Kate White's voice trailed off as she was transported back to the barn and to watching parents who, for an hour or so, could watch their child freed from everyday difficulties through therapeutic horseback riding.

White began as a volunteer when her high school aged son needed service hours. He completed his time and went off to college; White never left. Once she felt that magic, she wanted to be a part of it, going on to become a certified instructor and ultimately teaming up with Davorka (Dada) Suvak of Reston to co-found Spirit Open Equestrian Program in Herndon.

Equine Assisted Therapies also include the lesser known equine assisted psychotherapy which can help with anxiety and depression, trauma-related issues, traumatic brain injury and eating disorders. And, apparently, it can also be an effective tool used in marriage counseling. The therapy is experiential, with clients having a multi-scenery experience that can help create opportunities for understanding and healing, according to experts.

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) boasts 873 accredited member centers and more than 4,700 credentialed professionals internationally. These member centers serve approximately 86,900 children and adults, including more than 6,700 veterans. Locally, there are seven programs in Northern Virginia and approximately ten more in D.C. and Maryland.

For riders and their immediate families, certified instructors, hippotherapists, equine assisted psychotherapists, volunteers and staff all help create communities, with benefits that can be as important as the riding itself.

Founders, directors, clients and their families, psychotherapists and volunteers all struggled to maintain connection and both physical and emotional strength during the lock-down.

“It’s been miserable," David Jerome of Haymarket says of the stay-at-home order that has kept him away from his volunteer work at Sprout Therapeutic Riding and Education Center. “[I missed] seeing the students and seeing the joy they get out of [riding]."

Like all businesses, these non-profit programs had to refocus. They are typically fueled by client fees that are greatly subsidized by grants and individual and corporate donations.

While each of the programs I spoke with has cut costs wherever possible and qualified for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to pay some full-time employees, the horses still have to eat and facilities needed to be maintained. In Sprout's case, they lost more than two hundred and fifty volunteer hours each month in horse and facility care. Waldron and her lean full-time staff tirelessly filled in. Each of the programs had the same challenge.

Financially, income from riders was non-existent for several months, and much of the grant monies were either deferred or went away completely as grantors re-evaluated priorities in the face of the pandemic. Each of the programs has had to rethink budgets and fundraising efforts in order to ensure continued existence, all while continuing to maintain connections to their clients and the rest of their communities. They have gotten creative and have benefited from strong community involvement, but it's not enough to cover losses incurred as a result of the coronavirus.

Each program has researched, created and funded new protocols for keeping everyone safe. All of which takes time and money.

Davorka (Dada) Suvak, articulated what I heard from the directors of all of the programs I spoke with as they look forward, not back: "If you hold yourself to the past, you prevent yourself from growth and real improvement." These programs and their leaders are nothing, if not creative and tenacious.

There are quite a few programs in the D.C. Metro area; this series highlights just a few. All of the programs included are 501(c)(3) nonprofits. If you are interested in getting involved, please visit each program's websites.

Therapeutic Riding Association of Virginia

PATH International

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