Therapeutic riding

Photo by John C. Kuehner

Riders and walkers leave the arena and head toward an equestrian trail that runs alongside the Valley Riding Inc. center in the Rocky River Reservation.

NORTH OLMSTED - It’s a simple motion for most people.

Step up to the horse, put your left foot in the stirrup and swing your right leg over the saddle and sit down.

But this riding class in the Rocky River Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks is not for most people.

About 35 children and adults are in the Therapeutic Riding Program offered by Valley Riding Inc., which provides assisted lessons for riders with disabilities one day a week.

The challenge of just mounting the horse is part of the whole experience, explained Liz Biddick, who has taught the program for the past 17 years. That movement is a huge mind, body and strength connection, she said.

“I try as much as possible to have anybody who is capable to try to do a mount to support their own body weight,” Biddick said.

The class serves a wide range of riders. The class members could have autism, Attention Deficit, Hyperactivity Disorder, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, visual or hearing impairments as well as those who have suffered physical and sexual abuse or enduring PTSD or a range of other emotional issues.

To ease up into the saddle, some riders need a step or two, which are brought over and set beside the horse. And there is also a ramp outside the 14,000-square-foot riding arena, which is used to assist other riders who may use a wheelchair or who need higher platform for mounting.

Once on the horse, posture changes. The rider must sit up straight, working different muscles.

The class starts with warm-up exercises. Biddick calls out instructions to her riders as they walk around the arena: “Circle your left arm five times.” Other movements are commanded, such as ankle circles, which the riders follow to the best of their ability.

The exercises are to make the rider stronger, improve their coordination and balance and core strength, she said.

The horse gives the rider who has a different ability the chance to experience something common among typical riders, Biddick said. The size of the horse and its strength, the motion it goes through that the rider follows, awakens or arouses muscles in the back, the joints and hips. The movement goes up through spine and shoulders, which increases core strength. Spastic muscles can be relaxed and loosened.

Warmth radiates from the horse, a reassuring sensation that riders feel through their legs and also helps relaxes muscles. Sitting high up on a horse, moving through space and feeling up off the ground forces the rider to initiate a different kind of balance, like riding a bike, but a somewhat sense of more security with an animal moving underneath them. This also brings a sense of achievement and power to be above others who are there.

And the program provides social engagement. Riders can have one, two or three side walkers, one typically leading the horse while one or two others stand on either side of the rider to provide a reassuring hand or comment. More than two dozen volunteers help the riders through the six, 45-minute classes, which typically start at 4 p.m. and end at 8:30 p.m. Valley Riding offers education programs in horsemanship six days a week for typical riders.

Often when the weather permits, the riders and their side walkers leave the arena and head to the adjacent horse trail that follows along the west bank of the Rocky River. The Cleveland Metroparks has nearly 82 miles of equestrian trails in its 18 reservations that cover 23,000 acres in Cuyahoga, Lake and Medina counties.

Biddick said she feels gratitude or fulfillment when she sees improvement and riders grow confident.

“That confidence is as important as the riding skills,” she said.

The class has restrictions. Riders must have a certain amount of balance and be able to hold up their head. Riders must be able to sit on their own. Side walkers cannot hold up the riders. Riders on blood thinners also are forbidden because if they fall, they could suffer a bruise or cut. In some cases, a doctor must sign off before a rider can take the class.

Valley Riding, a non-profit organization started in 1986 by Lakewood native Margaret McElhany, has offered therapeutic riding since 1988. Since then the program has grown and has impacted hundreds of students and their families from all over Greater Cleveland, McElhany said.

One of her fondest memories is of a nonverbal student who during a lesson in her third year of riding spoke for the first time. She said "Amy," her horse’s name.

“That was a very powerful moment,” McElhany said.

Fifteen horses are used in the therapeutic program. The horses are carefully chosen. They must be able to tolerate a novice rider, be calm and not too energetic, and must be willing to go, but not anxious or antsy or prancy. A high-energy horse might not be suitable.

The program is accredited by PATH, International, a Denver-based professional association that establishes the safety and quality standards for therapeutic riding programs in North America. Biddick is a certified Path instructor, which means she completes annual continuing education courses, is CPR certified and First Aid training.

Valley Riding is one of 881 member centers and one of 272 premier accredited, which undergo a voluntary peer review process every five years to ensure it meets all the PATH standards from safety of participants to the treatment of horses, said Kaye Marks, marketing and communications director for PATH. Ohio has 328 centers and 17 are premier accredited.

What separates the horse from other companion animals is that when the rider is on a horse, the rider gets stronger. It’s good for developing muscle tone, loosening hips and building core strength. The most common disability served at member centers are riders who are on the autism spectrum, she said. People suffering from autism respond well to horses. A broad range of behavior changes can occur.

“It’s fascinating stuff, it really is,” she said. “Horses are into it. They have a deep soul. They really pick up on everything.”

Meanwhile back at the arena, Biddick watches as her five riders continue with their warm-up exercises.

“Seeing the interaction of the people is joyful, but just getting to know particular riders brings a lot of joy to my life,” Biddick said. “I enjoy being in the arena with those riders.

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