Riding for Health

Riding for Health

Wednesday, April 19, was a big day for 8-year-old Billy Huettner. For the first time in his life he walked into a horseback riding ring and touched a horse. With both hands.

Last fall, when Billy began taking horseback riding lessons with his classmates, he would not set foot into the riding ring.

"I had to lift him, but once he touched [the horse] you could feel him relax and see the calm come over him," his school teacher, Alison Pugh, said. "It was so great."

Billy is autistic and every Wednesday, Pugh brings him and the rest of her third- to fifth-grade resource class from Leesburg Elementary out to the Loudoun Therapeutic Riding Foundation for a horseback riding class.

"This is the fourth year we have been doing this," Pugh said. "We come once a week during the fall and once a week during the spring. It is such a great opportunity for the kids."

THE LOUDOUN Therapeutic Riding Foundation has been offering riding lessons for children with disabilities since 1974. It has been at its current location in Leesburg at the Morven Park International Equestrian Center since 1995.

"We work with kids with autism, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, spina bifida and Down syndrome," program director Joanne Hart said.

Each week students from Cedar Lane, Leesburg, Catoctin and Newton-Lee elementary schools come on their assigned day for a three-hour morning class. Classes are taught like a traditional riding lesson with an instructor that has been certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association and are tailored to each riders’ specific needs, Hart said.

"For a class that is more physically able, we will do exercises on the horses, like reading, identifying letters, colors and shapes and we use lots of props," she said. "For those with more physical needs there will be a lot more physical therapy involved."

Students are taught basic riding skills, such as mounting and dismounting, how to hold the reins and how to properly guide the horses, Hart said. Those who are able will also be taught how to trot, something Hart said is a favorite of the students.

Hart, who has been with the foundation since 1984 and has been a certified therapeutic riding instructor since 1980, dreams of a time when the foundation will be able to put a dedicated facility on the property and be able to expand the program.

"Eventually I would love to have everything in one place," she said. "We want to be able to provide classes indoors so that we can ride year round. We want to be able to have everything in one place."

For now though, the foundation is guests of Morven Park, something Hart said is "wonderful," but the demand for their services is growing. Currently the foundation has a waiting list of 96 people for the evening private lessons.

"As the county is growing, the special populations are growing as well," Hart said. "And we have a very low turnover rate."

THE REASON FOR the low turnover and high demand for the foundation's services is the benefits therapeutic riding gives its students. Through horseback riding, children with disabilities are able to improve both physically and mentally.

"The self-confidence riding gives the kids is amazing," Pugh said. "It is so rewarding for them. It gives them a sense of accomplishment. They're just happier."

For a lot of Pugh's students, riding also gives them a way to communicate with those around them.

"Mom knows that Wednesday they come to riding and that gives her something to ask them about," Pugh said.

In addition to the mental and emotional benefits, working with a horse provides the children with a lot of physical benefits as well.

Horseback riding helps students to work on their balance and their spatial awareness, Hart said, and learning to guide a horse allows students to improve their coordination.

"Guiding a horse deals with muscle strengthening and hand-eye coordination," she said. "It is a sensory exercise as well."

When possible, students also work with the horses from the ground, learning how to groom them and how to put on a saddle and a bridle.

"Tacking up really helps the kids with small and gross motor skills," Hart said. "There are a lot of big and little buckles that they have to work with."

Pugh said that she can see the affect riding has had on her students in other areas.

"It generalizes into other areas," she said. "They're on task and focused after coming from riding class. They focus better because they have to be focusing or they will fall off the horse."

One of Pugh's students is blind in one eye and since he has started riding, Pugh said, he has been able to balance in a way he could not before.

"It's amazing to see him now be able to balance on play equipment," she said.

WORKING WITH student with disabilities requires more work and more hands than teaching a typical riding lesson, which is why the foundation depends on its volunteers and needs them in order to be successful.

Depending on the size of the class and the need of the riders, anywhere from four to 12 volunteers work with a single class.

The volunteers that work with the foundation and the riders are a combination of what Hart calls "horse people and nonhorse people." Those volunteers that have experience with horses work as leaders, walking the horses around the ring. Those volunteers who have not worked with horses before are side walkers, walking beside the horses to ensure the rider's safety.

"We would not survive without our volunteers," Hart said, adding that volunteers must be at least 14 years old and able to work once a week.

Bob Seale, the foundation's 2005 Adult Volunteer of the Year, started volunteering as a something he thought he would try out and now, four years later, he is a believer.

"I came here to help people and I think they're helping me more," he said. "You see some boys and you see how much they are enjoying themselves."

Seale's teenage son is also a volunteer, something Seale thinks is very important for youth to do.

"It is great for young kids to volunteer at a place like this," he said. "It is all plus. There are no minuses and where else can you say that?"

For Hart, the improvement she sees in the students is all the motivation she needs.

"For a lot of these kids the opportunities are very limited for physical exercise," she said. "For them to be involved with something and do something on their own is so empowering."