Most people likely think of horseback riding as something of a fun leisure-time activity or a reliable form of transportation in the Old West. But for many individuals with special needs and their families, a seemingly simple ride can be so much more.
Lisa Way has seen it firsthand. As a PATH-certified (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) instructor at Exceptional Equestrians Unlimited in Hobart since 1997, she has led hundreds of therapeutic sessions for riders with special needs ranging from ADHD and autism to Alzheimer’s and Down syndrome. The idea, she says, is not to provide a high-energy thrill ride with grip-the-reins-tightly intensity, but rather to forge a meaningful connection between horse and rider through peaceful, easy guided movement around the arena.
“My favorite part of instructing is seeing the progress our riders make with their horsemanship and the bonds they make with their horses,” she says.
Those bonds help riders build their confidence and self-esteem, improve their balance and develop their gross and fine motor skills, benefits that spring forth from the unique opportunity to sit atop and help direct a powerful but gentle animal. Riders with attention deficit issues, for example, are able to work on their focus and self control to guide their horses around the arena and follow sequential steps, while riders with autism may work on social skills and sensory integration. Whether physical or emotional, Way says the benefits of time and movement with the horses are truly amazing to behold.
“Riders with almost every type of special need seem to respond very positively on an individual basis,” she explains. “One of the most inspiring events that we get to see at this very special place is vocabulary improvement. We’ve had a few of our riders speak their first word or words to their horses, especially ‘walk on’ to make their horse go.”
While connecting with riders doesn’t present much of a challenge for the horses and staff of EEU, keeping the nonprofit organization running on its important mission can be a big one, which is why it relies so heavily on volunteers to get through its two regular eight-week sessions and variety of special programs every April through October. Way says that potential volunteers needn’t have any previous experience working with horses—they simply need to be enthusiastic about the idea of helping these great animals in doing what has, for 35 years now, been a lot of great work for riders with special needs.
“Because our horses do so much for our students, we want to give them the best of everything," Way says.