For people with disabilities, horses make sense in therapy
At 12, Kristi Dolot’s son Steven began working with the horses and staff of Therapeutic Riding when they were in stables at Bingham Farms.
Despite his autism and intellectual impairments, Dolot said, Steven’s confidence and self-respect have grown throughout 17 years on horseback, nearly half of the 35-year-history of the program, which offers what is known scientifically and medically as equine assisted therapy.
“What we see with him is that this is very good with his self-esteem, because he has a lot of challenges,” she said. “Over time, he’s been able to steer a little bit now, and he enjoys it.
“When you look at these horses, they’re huge. And I think it takes a lot of courage for these people to get on and ride them.
“So I think just being able to do that and go around an arena is great for their self-esteem,” said Dolot, who lives in Belleville. “And then I think that the trust you build with the people who are helping you, the staff and volunteers, as well.
“I’ve just always been so impressed with the facility.”
Across the ages, people who work with them say their interactions, on the farm and ranch, in shows, while racing and in war, are often mutual.
Recent studies show they respond to the facial expressions and moods of people around them, especially their handlers and riders.
Mental health care providers, including those allied with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship in the United States and the Riding for the Disabled Association in the United Kingdom, say they believe expansive benefits flow from contact between horses and the mentally ill.
Physical therapists say the gait of a walking horse so closely approximates humans that people who have not walked in years get some of the benefits of the exercise by riding.
Equine-assisted therapy, or EAT, encompasses a range of health care.
Its roots are in antiquity. The Greeks used horses to treat incurable illnesses. Hippocrates discoursed on its therapeutic value.
Writings of the 17th century prescribe it as treatment for gout, neurological disorders and blue moods. In Scandinavia after World War II, it was used to battle polio.
Most modern applications for physical health are about 60 years old and date to the 1990s in mental health treatment, according to medical and scientific journals.
Established in 1984, Therapeutic Riding Inc., or TRI, grew from several horses and a rented stable to 15 horses and four trained instructors, support staff and more than 220 volunteers, on its own 46-acre facility in Ann Arbor.
“We get no insurance payments and no government funding whatever,” said Tammera Bollman, the executive director.
“We are 100% supported by individual donors, fundraisers, program grants and gifts from foundations.”
The cost to provide a half-hour lesson is $69, but the riders are charged only $30.
If financial limitations make that too costly, a scholarship fund provided by a local family covers it, Bollman said.
“At TRI, we empower riders to build confidence and to enhance minds and bodies,” says Jan Vescelius, the program director and head instructor.
“Lives are changed through working with horses, whether the participants are in the saddle or working on the ground or both.
“Adaptive horsemanship is just that, and it changes us for the better,” Vescelius said.
“The benefits of improved social, cognitive, physical or emotional growth don’t just stay at the barn; those benefits go out the door with our riders and into their everyday lives.”
Resting in a room off the indoor riding area, Deb Swartz, 60, of Saline talked about her life with multiple sclerosis, and how riding helps.
“I’ve read that it most simulates walking,” Swartz said. “The way their hips move is similar, and muscle memory for us.
“It’s very therapeutic for me on every level. Physically, I’m stretched. I feel like I’ve had a massage when I leave.
“Emotionally and psychologically, it’s so uplifting,” she said.
Involved with Therapeutic Riding for a decade, Swartz said she rode as a child, but her husband of 40 years is allergic to the animals. When she began having mobility issues, she was led back to the barn.
“And we were laughing out there today, because I said, 'this barn is aroma therapy for me,'” she said. “The smell of the horses, it’s just a lure for me.
“When I came in after 40 years without riding, the smell, it just hit me.
“It was like home.”
Robert Graham, 30, has been riding at TRI for 17 years. Graham, who has Down syndrome and autism, has grown from possessing almost no knowledge of horses to having learned dressage, the peak of horse training, in which rider and horse perform from memory a series of elaborate movements.
He also volunteers to help with equipping horses ("tacking up"), cleaning stalls ("mucking") and sweeping stalls, and cleaning horses.
“For Robert, it’s just been outstanding,” said his mother, Debita Graham of Saline.
“It’s helped with his speech and his confidence and his coordination.
“The horses are amazing,” she said. “They listen and they have this keen sense of being able to read the rider and adjust accordingly.
“The adjust their stride, it seems like, just in how they listen and adjust to the rider.”