The Horse as Therapist

Part 2

By Ingrid Edisen

“No longer is he Johnny who can’t do anything (at school),” said Linda Atkinson director of HELP riding center in Austin, TX, “but he is Johnny who was jumping his horse last night.” Atkinson explained that increased self esteem is just one of the many benefits her charges receive at the handicapped riding center in Austin, Texas. HELP stands for Handicapped Equestrian Learning Program.

Kerstin Fosdick, a physical therapist and executive director of The Saddle Light Center for Therapeutic Horsemanship in Selma, Texas, north of San Antonio also has seen that occur with their program’s riders. “When they ride, they don’t even know that they receive therapy,” she said. “Not only are there tremendous physical benefits but...also emotional, psychological and social gains as well.

Both HELP and The Saddle Light Center are NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicap Association) affiliate member centers. The two centers structure their lessons a bit differently but the goals are the same–to help handicapped riders in a special way that magically envelopes the riders by simply being around horses. Saddle Light performs 60 rides a week, five nights a week, Monday through Friday, at the Retama Equestrian Center (not to be confused with the Retama Race Track). At that location, the outfit has access to an indoor arena. It has three fulltime employees plus volunteers. On the other hand, HELP is an all-volunteer organization that offers one-on-one lessons with the riders and works two nights a week, with some lessons spilling into Saturdays. During the school year, many of HELP’s volunteers come from the University of Texas’s special education classes that mandate community service.

Of course, during the summer we need more volunteers, Atkinson noted, but we keep it small because we have found sometimes we make more progress with the one-on-one approach. She and the other instructors are able to command their rider’s attention since there are as many as three to four adults working with the rider at any time. Currently, HELP has a waiting list of thirty-three. It tends to work with children and young adults and has a volunteer staff of roughly twenty. Two of its riders have been with the program for eighteen and fourteen years. “Our riders don’t quit,” Atkinson said.
Saddle Light partakes of four fundraisers throughout the year to offset the costs of its program. A ride costs the student $25, explained Fosdick. But, she noted that was really more like paying 43 cents on the dollar and the program must subsidize its expenses via fundraising. The program helps riders ranging from ages two to sixty.

HELP has nine horses; Saddle Light has eight. Atkinson has been involved with HELP for nineteen years and is additionally a NAHRA-certified instructor; Fosdick began working with Saddle Light in 1992; that program’s inception was in ‘91. She was made executive director in 1999. Saddle Light also has Linda Koehler who is NARHA certified as is Fosdick. Koehler teaches Therapeutic Horseback riding, explained Fosdick. This means that Koehler “teaches a rider with a disability the sport of riding horses, which involves grooming, tacking, leading, mounting, reining and walk and trot (if appropriate),” said Fosdick. Fosdick, further explained that since she is a licensed Physical Therapist, she “treats the disability, using the horse as a tool to provide this therapy.”

HELP’s Atkinson related that her program’s riders have developmental challenges such as “CP” (cerebral palsy) and many of them are “multi-abled,” meaning that they may have more than one thing “wrong” with them. They are multi-issued, so to speak. This is not uncommon with handicapped riders to begin with but it can make the teaching more difficult. Down Syndrome is also evident among some of HELP’s riders.

Fosdick gave an excellent description of how, exactly, her program assists the riders. She said, “The horse’s hip movement instills in the rider what their hips should be doing if they could move in a normal way, such as anterior/posterior tilting, lateral shift and rotation. This movement facilitates proprioceptors in the joints (positional sense) and the vestibular system (inner ear) for balance and upright position against the force of gravity.” The client, she went on to say, gains torso or core strength not normally challenged in a wheelchair. “The horse gives this multi-sensory input,” she said. And over time, spastic muscles are retrained and strengthened to more normal functioning.

“So many of our clients have gone through ECI (Early Childhood Intervention) programs,” Fosdick observed. ECI spans from ages 0-3. “After age three,” she said, “they may receive physical therapy in the standard settings and by the time they reach school age, they have had so many years of therapy that they are ready for something new and different.” In session, the clients “only see this fun activity with a sweet, furry animal and ‘walking’ people next to them talking, joking and asking them questions,” she said.

Atkinson tells the story of a Down Syndrome boy who had ridden for six months with HELP. Such children often walk with an abnormal, tilted body posture. One day, the mother of the little boy was astonished to see her child walk totally upright towards her. HELP had done its job of giving the child physical strength. At HELP, the kids play a lot of “games,” Atkinson said. These games are actually therapeutic in nature but the riders don’t know it. They play basketball and have to put a ball through a hoop from horseback. Simon Says and (mounted) Hide And Go Seek are other games. Many of the games and activities at HELP are performed outside the arena, Atkinson explained as so often the children are already used to performing activities in confined spaces. The games increase their gross motor control and hand-eye coordination. They learn their colors, sequential patterning and how to take direction,” she noted. However she had to laugh at the image of a kid on a huge thousand-pound animal thinking he or she was hidden by scooting behind a skinny sapling. Some of the riders think that if you don’t see their faces, they are hidden so they may lean backwards on the horse and look up at the sky or simply bury their faces in the horse’s mane, Atkinson explained. Everyone goes along with the game–the instructors and sidewalkers, too.

Mid-line crossing (whereby one can hand off an object by moving an object across one’s midline) is a challenge often for CP sufferers, Atkinson said. But she’s seen some of her CP clients get past this challenge. It may take several months or a year and it means the brain has figured out another pattern to make the mid-line crossing happen but despite the kid’s disability, the brain figures out another way, she explained.

Another client at HELP, an autistic one, would scream as the mother helped the child out of the car and then as he as being assisted onto the horse. Everyone could see that the rider was gaining in physical strength, though, but the mother doubted the program since her child never stopped screaming. One day, though, after six months, the child calmly got out of the car, walked over to Linda and said “hat on” while patting his head. The child was no longer screaming. He merely wanted to put on his helmet and get to the riding.

Another rider, a Down Syndrome boy was accessed as not being able to tell his right from his left. Yet, on videotape, Atkinson was able to document to everyone that he indeed knew the difference. She orally instructed the student to ride the horse to the left after the mounted pair was taken into a corner of the ring that blocked such a passage. The student just kept his horse stock-still. She made the request again. The student shot back at her that he couldn’t perform the request, as he was unable to turn the horse left in that instance. Atkinson then gave the video to the mother and student so he’d have something to show his teachers and fellow students at school.

And the jumping at HELP? It’s not really jumping but from on top of a horse it sure looks like it to the rider. The staff fixes up a jump of an impressive set of crossrails that rest perhaps three feet on the jump stands on the outside, yet really meet at ground level in the middle. The sidewalkers take the rider “over” the jump at a walk or trot (if the student is ready for trotting) and while they have to “jump” maybe five inches while moving along the sides of the horse, the horse and rider pair really just continue on at ground level. Yet to the rider, he has performed a difficult task. And if you think about it, much of riding to all of us is a confidence booster–whether we’re handicapped or not. And suddenly he is no longer “Johnny that can’t but Johnny that can.”

For more information about HELP, visit their website at: or you can email Linda Atkinson at For more information about The Saddle Light Center call Kerstin Fosdick at 210-651-9574, email: or visit their website at:

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