Therapy Horses

In the small town of Topsham, Maine, a group of children stand together on one side of a riding ring. Some have obvious physical or cognitive handicaps – autism, cerebral palsy, spinal bifida are only a few. Others face challenges within themselves, battling learning disabilities and emotional dysfunctions.

On the other side of the ring, five or six horses are lined up with their human handlers. The horses, too, differ from one another, in breed and in personality. From long experience as a therapeutic riding instructor, Barbara Doughty knows she can lead a horse to a child, but she can't force a bond between the two.

To the children, horses looked majestic from far away, large, graceful animals that are literally the stuff of legends. But up close, they are breathtakingly beautiful. One by one the children are led to a horse. Doughty watches for a reaction. A lowered head or a gentle nuzzle is all that is needed to show that a bond is forming.

"I let the horses choose the children," Doughty explains. "I find this makes extremely effective parings, much better than anything I had in mind." The bond between child (or, in some cases, the adult) is much deeper when the horse makes the decision. So far, the horse-first policy has had 100 percent success.

The 14 horses that reside at the 26-acre Flying Changes Center for Therapeutic Riding, constitute the "four-legged staff," explains Doughty, the center's founder and executive director. Horses are naturally perceptive animals, a must for creatures who see themselves as "prey." This means they always keep a sharp eye out for friends or enemies.

The children who seek out a bond with the horses definitely fall in the "friend" category. Animals naturally draw out children, and horses particularly are mesmerizing. Their size, feel, friendliness and history can draw out the most reclusive child.

But in therapeutic riding, there's more to it than just a warm, affectionate and fuzzy creature. For a child with autism or some other sensory or expressive dysfunction, the horse is a "sensory treasure chest," explains Doughty. The motion of a horse provides a rhythmic sensation that is beneficial. The child focuses intently – much more intently than he or she otherwise would – on the gentle forward, sideways or backward movement. "It's like a big, gentle, moving couch," she says.

They also learn the many sensations the horse itself has to offer – the rough mane and tail, the soft, warm coat, the long, smooth nose. As their development or progress permits, the children become more involved with the horse. All begin with half-hour private sessions to allow child and horse to focus completely on one another. Later, the sessions are lengthened to allow the child to groom, tack and ride.

As a child's social skills improve, he or she is brought into a group session with other children and their horses. Individual programs vary, depending on the needs of the child and the recommendations of the medical caregiver.

Not every horse is suited to therapy riding. Calm, even tempered horses are used that have been screened, tested and trained before ever being placed with a child.

Origins of Therapeutic Riding

Doughty knows first-hand the positive effect that horses have on children with cognitive or expressive dysfunctions. As a child with learning disabilities, she said she felt more empowered and confident mentally when riding horses. Later, as a teacher and Head Start administrator, she learned the benefits that therapy dogs offered.

Then she became involved in therapy riding as an instructor. About 9 years ago, she opened Flying Changes with just two horses and five children. Therapy riding was slow to catch on, Doughty explains, especially in Maine, where new ideas are not always readily accepted. But eventually, she and others were able to show the benefits and secure funding. Now, she has 14 horses, 80 children and five other instructors.

Doughty's experience is a microcosm of what has occurred on a national scale. Therapeutic riding is a relatively recent phenomenon that began in Europe in the 1950s. Studying the success of therapy riding, Canadians and Americans formed the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NAHRA) in 1970. Accreditation and instructor programs were developed, but the organization grew slowly in the seventies and eighties.

In the 1990s, NARHA blossomed with the help of a grant from the Kellogg Foundation. This grant and others helped establish new educational workshops and expand others. More guidelines and certification programs were established to ensure quality and safety of member riding centers. Today, Flying Changes is one of 600 accredited therapeutic riding centers in North America.

Many are banding together to build world-class riding facilities. Flying Changes, for instance, has become a partner with the Libra Foundation to build a large riding center, offering expanded programs to more children. To learn more about Flying Changes, you can visit them at

Personal Ponies

Flying Changes represents the professional, therapeutic side of the effect equines have on special-need children. There is another side – the wish of many children to own a pony. The wish is the innocent desire to own a pony for only the bond – to children, any health benefits are something adults can worry about.

It's a wish that Marianne Alexander, founder of Personal Ponies, has been fulfilling for special children.

Personal Ponies is a national organization dedicated to providing free ponies to children who are sick or injured. The organization works with individual communities through regional and state directors to provide ponies to day care centers, therapeutic riding centers, convalescent homes, as well as to individual family members.

However, Alexander stresses that Personal Ponies is not therapy. "We call it magic," she says, "and though some therapists use our ponies, we do not lay claim to being therapy."

The ponies – all original Shetlands from Ireland, emphasizes Alexander – are for hugging, not riding (though some are ridden). At 26 inches in height, most are too small to be ridden. They are the equine version of The Velveteen Rabbit.

The program had its beginnings in 1947, when Alexander's 5-year-old brother was dying of epilepsy. When he could, he pretended to lead a pony he named "Kate." After he died, Alexander vowed to help sick children realize the same wish.

Life, of course, has that way of intervening. Alexander grew up, became a teacher, got married. But she pursued a love for equines and bred Irish sport horses. About 6 years ago, she decided it was time to fulfill her vow.

The program began in upstate New York as a grassroots organization, which it has remained. All the people associated with Personal Ponies are volunteers, including the 10 regional directors, the 48 state directors and the countless community directors spread across the United States.
Any child – or in some cases adult – that has a special need is eligible. The family goes through a screening process to ensure they are able to take care of the pony. The ponies are provided free of charge. If a family cannot provide for the pony any longer, the animal is returned to Personal Ponies to be placed with another family.

These Shetlands are ideal, Alexander says, because they were raised to be affectionate and unflappable. They are not spooked by wheelchairs or strange noises, and have the sturdiness inherent in Shetlands. In fact, these ponies were originally bred to drag coal from the mines of Ireland, where the miners were often children.

"This is poetic justice," Alexander explains. "They went from years suffering with children in the coal mines to spending years being happy in the arms of children."

To learn more about Personal Ponies, visit them at