Most of the people who contact Horses Connect about our Therapeutic Services are parents of children with some kind of disability.
These parents are true warriors because they battle every hour of every day to give that child the best life possible. They fight for services, for education, for assessments, for equipment and for just about anything their son or daughter needs.
They’re also fighting an unseen, often unacknowledged, inner battle that includes constant worry about the future, grief for what might have been and guilt for how they may have contributed to their child’s condition, or how they should have done things differently or noticed something sooner. And then there’s the strain on finances, relationships, siblings and friendships.
When parents arrive at Horses Connect for their child’s
initial assessment, we are already aware of how much that mother and father are
carrying, so we do our best to lighten their load for 30 minutes once a week.
It takes great trust to hand your precious and sometimes
fragile child over to strangers who then put him or her on horse. All the tears,
worry and sleepless nights they have invested in the child up to that moment
melt away when they see the joy and hear the laughter. As the child relaxes and
starts to engage with the coaches, the parents begin to breathe again.
Little by little, week by week, those parents let go. They
release some of that worry and guilt and grief and they begin to look more like
themselves again – even if only for 30 minutes, once a week. They put down the
weight of all they’ve been carrying and they take a break, while we look after
When the session is over and we return a happy and relaxed
child to happy and relaxed parents, we know we – and our amazing horses – have
done our job.
The Therapeutic effects of Therapeutic Horse-riding extend
much further than the riders!
It was one of the biggest groups we’d worked with at the
time. Twenty four people, representing the entire workforce of small local
business, wanted to explore and improve how they functioned as a team.
This was their first time attending any kind of training together, and the reactions ranged from curiosity to terror. Some were apprehensive about spending the day with ‘management’ and the company directors. Many were nervous about the prospect of being close to horses. Others were looking forward to the experience. None had any previous horse experience.
After a couple of introductory exercises, we randomly dividing
them in four teams of six, and set each team a Secret Task. Their instructions
were to carry out their task without letting any other group know what they
were trying to achieve.
Because this was an established, tight-knit group, well used
to working together under pressure towards a common goal, it didn’t take them
too long to discover that each team had been given the same task; move the
group of horses that represented their customers into the area they had
designated as their business.
Everyone was equally out of their comfort zones so the people
who generally gave directions and made sure everyone was playing their part
were of little or no help. The management team and directors tried all their
usual means of getting things done, but nothing worked. The horses went everywhere
except where the group wanted them to go. They sensed the lack of direction and
rising frustration within the group and reacted accordingly. It was an
That’s when it got really interesting!
One young man, who was part of support team and had no management or leadership experience, could see what needed to change and began to issue instructions to the rest of the group. He was helped by the person who was most afraid of the horses, but was willing to put aside her fear for the good of team. She also happened to be least senior person in the whole organisation. She reminded everyone that their task was not simply to move horses. It was to encourage their customers, as represented by the horses, towards their business; because without customers, there would be no business.
Under the careful guidance of these two unlikely and unexpected leaders, the group set about bringing their customers where they needed to be. The ‘bosses’ looked at each other then dutifully followed orders because they could immediately see that the pair who had stepped up and taken charge of the situation were getting results. People willingly responded to their instructions and everything came together. In a few minutes, the group successfully completed their task without any more drama.
That session brought a lot of learning moments – for the group and the individuals – but the one that stood out for everyone was the importance of clarity. As soon as the vision was clear, and both humans and horses had basic directions to follow, everything flowed.
The job titles of the people giving those directions were irrelevant. Their positions within the company didn’t matter. The horses had no idea who was earning the least, held the
most responsibility, signed the cheques or swept the floors. They responded to
confusion and lack of direction by scattering all around the arena, and they
responded to vision and clarity by moving calmly as a herd in the direction
they were guided.
As for the company directors, they learned a bit about
giving people autonomy and helping them to work to their strengths.
You see your child being led around on a pony at a walk and you may be wondering how what we’re doing is any different to a simple pony ride.
All Horses Connect Therapeutic Horse-riding coaches are qualified, registered, insured and experienced professionals. We have been trained to utilise the movement of the horse to provide specific physical, sensory and other benefits to the rider.
We have also been trained to start from where your child is and gently build skills, confidence and abilities, without ever overwhelming or over-stretching your child. One of the ways we achieve this by playing games – because we believe that fun must be an integral part of learning.
At the start, the games will be all about reaching, stretching and crossing the body. As your child progresses, we will introduce colours, shapes, numbers, letters etc. Your child is constantly being encouraged to speak, give directions and answer questions all through the Therapeutic horse-riding session..
We work on Fine and Gross Motor Skills, coordination, strategic thinking, problem-solving, decision making, spatial awareness, sensory integration, social skills, reflexes and much more – always led by the rider’s needs, goals, interests and abilities.
While all this is happening, the horse is doing its magic.
Another integral part of learning is movement. There is a growing body of research to show that movement stimulates the brain to learn better. And that’s just one of the many benefits of sitting on a moving horse.
We never use a saddle for our Therapeutic horse-riding sessions – just a bareback pad.
The pad is for the comfort of both horse and rider. Some horses have bony backs and some riders have bony backsides! The pad is designed to allow the rider to experience the warmth and full motion of the horse’s body. The warmth helps relax and stretch tight muscles. The three-dimensional motion of the horse’s walk works in several different ways.
A walking horse transfers 110 multi-dimensional swinging motions to the rider per minute, causing the rider to instinctively adjust their position to maintain balance.
Apart from what this is doing to help improve balance through their inner ear, your child’s core is working incredibly hard. A short walk down the boreen and back adds uneven ground and slight hills to the challenge. This is why some riders can’t last the full 30 minutes at the beginning. It’s also why our riding sessions are never longer than 30 minutes.
You will see the coach repeatedly walk behind the horse. The purpose of this is to check that the rider’s pelvis and spine are in alignment with the horse’s pelvis and spine – a crucial element of successful Therapeutic Horse-riding.
Sometimes we will sit a rider backwards on the horse because some children who collapse through their core when facing forwards find it much easier to sit up straight when facing backwards. The same applies to children who are inclined to tilt to the left or right.
Sitting them backwards for a while allows them to continue to gain the benefits of the horse’s movement without having to work so hard to stay in alignment.
Very often, coming to the end of a session, we will lie the rider face down on the horse, with their head towards the tail. This position has many therapeutic benefits for the rider.
Lying face down on a moving horse stimulates the rider’s Vagus Nerve.
This is the largest nerve in the human body and is responsible for connecting the body and the brain, improving learning and memory, balancing sensory input and much, much more.
Lying face down on a moving pony is also deeply relaxing.
The warmth, rhythm and movement replicates how it felt to be carried in the womb. The rider’s hips and shoulders are mimicking the crawling movement, so it is hugely beneficial for any children who have missed that milestone.
So, while it may look like nothing much is happening and progress is slow, your child’s body and brain are working very hard and, slowly but surely, improving in so many ways.
It is unlikely that you’ll see a difference week by week, but when you look back to Day 1 after at least 6 sessions you will be able to recognise subtle changes in things like posture, balance, stamina, attention span, social skills, speech and general wellbeing.
We work by appointment ONLY.
All sessions are one-to-one.
Contact us for more information or to arrange a FREE assessment
So, there I was, minding my own business and making a fair whack of trimming the grass when I thought I heard a familiar voice calling my name.
Sure enough, when I looked up, there was the lady with the White Head who used to sit on my back and give me treats and cuddles.
I ambled over and was delighted that she remembered exactly where I like to be scratched. I trained her well! She seemed happy to see me.
There was another lady there with a Yellow Head and they were both petting and scratching me, which was very nice. They were saying nice things about me too. I believe the word used by the Yellow Head lady was ‘perfect’. I can’t argue with that!
They left and I went back to my job of trimming the grass, but the next day they came back and asked me to get in a lorry. I’m an obliging fellow so, even though it seemed a bit strange, I walked up the ramp and off we went.
Before long, the ramp was lowered and in came Realtog – a gent of a pony if ever I met one! He’s old and wise and was able to fill me in on what was happening, so I kind of knew what to expect when we arrived at the Horses Connect base in Bushypark, close to Galway city. I was going to be a Therapist!
The rest of that day was spent getting my feet trimmed and my legs and tail washed. People were fussing over me like they already knew how important I am!
I also met another pony called O’Malley. He told me that I would be getting loads and loads of TLC, but that I would have to be extra careful of the people on my back. I’m always extra-careful of the people on my back anyway, so that will be no bother to me!
O’Malley and Realtog said the White Head and the Yellow Head ladies will teach me what I need to do to work as a Therapist with them.
I did a small bit of work on Saturday with a young man who was learning to lead. He was scared at first, and he thought I would step on him, but I’d never do that!
The big smile on his face when I walked and stopped and turned when he asked me was amazing!
Realtog and O’Malley said we don’t do any work from Saturday afternoon until Thursday afternoon – or sometimes Wednesday afternoon.