Video and story by Maya Yegorova
Art and music therapy have long been available to aid children with disabilities. Now, horses are giving additional support to nurture emotional and physical developments such as core strength and motor skills.
Here in New York City, therapeutic riding is offered by the Staten Island Recreational Association’s program, Helping Others Overcome Personal Handicaps.
Its home is at the Ocean Breeze Indoor Horse Riding Arena, located near the boardwalk on the island’s North Shore. HOOPH was founded in 2005 at an outdoor facility, and moved to the indoor arena after it opened in 2016.
HOOPH offers 30-minute weekly lessons for participants ranging in age from 3 to 21. The program welcomes people with conditions such as cerebral palsy, emotional trauma, Asperger’s syndrome and muscular dystrophy.
Therapeutic riding stimulates the muscles required for walking, promoting the hope that the disabled child may walk one day. Though therapeutic riding, children can enhance their posture while working on balance and coordination. For an autistic child who is non-verbal, the established social connection between them and the horse is developed in hopes to promote speech.
Director Megan Delmar said parents fill out applications in which they describe their children’s strengths and weaknesses as well as note what life goal their children want to achieve. Some children want to make a new friend, while others want to learn how to ride a bike. Therapeutic horseback riding instructors then try to formulate a lesson plan to help children achieve these goals.
Delmar said prospective instructors must complete a one-year course study through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. Once passing their online course, they advance to the practical stage which consists of horse training for four days. At the conclusion of the practical stage, applicants then conduct a lesson for two disabled individuals in front of instructors, earning either a passing or failing grade. Applicants must also take an additional riding test.
A therapeutic horseback riding instructor is just one component of a HOOPH lesson, as high school aged volunteers are available to either interact with the child or lead the horse around the arena. Volunteer Coordinator Mike Vonness said there is a sense of family, as some volunteers who graduate return to help during their college years.