Therapeutic riding brings calm to students and parents

Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2006

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Samantha Flowe, 20, of Potomac, who has autism, says goodbye to her horse Isadora on Friday while her instructor Nancy Heller looks on after a therapeutic riding lesson at the Potomac Horse Center in Gaithersburg.

Mona Zeiberg never thought that her 12-year-old son Zak would be able to do something as active as riding a horse.

So, the Potomac resident was delighted when her son, who has autism and doesn’t speak, got in the horse’s saddle in the first five minutes of his therapeutic horseback riding lessons at the Potomac Horse Center in Gaithersburg, and expressed such an interest in the horse and the activity.

‘‘It’s great because I see progress,” said Zeiberg, who added that Zak has been taking lessons for about a year.

Many parents of disabled children are amazed at how easily their children take to therapeutic horseback riding and how much they enjoy and benefit from it.

Therapeutic riding is specially designed horseback riding lessons that help people with a range of disabilities from autism to cerebral palsy. The balance, socialization and concentration that is needed to ride a horse has helped people with physical, social and cognitive disabilities dating back to as early as 600 B.C., according to Wikepedia, the online encyclopedia.

The Potomac Horse Center has offered therapeutic riding for 15 years and currently has students, of various ages ranging from 5 to 75, with a variety of disabilities, including depression, Down syndrome and speech language deficits.

Nearly 40 stables in Maryland offer therapeutic riding lessons.

In addition to the therapeutic riding programs at Potomac Horse Center, there are four others in Montgomery County, including Great Strides Therapeutic Riding in Damascus, Circle of Hope in Barnesville, Equine Therapy Associates in Potomac and the National Center for Therapeutic Riding in Burtonsville.

Potomac Horse Center therapeutic riding instructor Nancy Heller works to bring out the best in each student, and uses her skills from teaching special education for nine years to instruct disabled riders at the center.

‘‘I have the patience to deal with people and their inappropriate vocalizations, be it screams, swearing, crying or inappropriate remarks,” Heller said. ‘‘These kids don’t remember things one day from the next, that’s why they are in special ed.”

Equine-assisted therapy can benefit the posture, balance and strength of riders through the direct movement of the horse, while the activities Heller does with her students help develop fine motor, memorization and socialization skills.

Zeiberg said her son’s handwriting has improved since he began the lessons and it gives him a chance to be like any other kid and take part in an activity.

‘‘Most importantly he has a really good time while he’s here,” Zeiberg said. ‘‘I actually think that his favorite part is the motion. When the horse moves fast, he really gets a kick out of it.”

Although different riders have different needs and receive different benefits from therapeutic riding, the contact with other people and the special bond the student forms with an animal is the basis of horse therapy, according to Heller, a Potomac resident.

‘‘I strongly believe in the bond between the horse and the rider,” Heller said.

Therapeutic instructors work with their student’s other professionals, such as physical therapists, while developing lessons for their students, she said.

‘‘I don’t know of any skeptics because the fun is there and the sport is there,” Heller said.

It’s rare for a student to completely stop their physical therapy to only take horse therapy lessons but all therapists work together toward one common goal, Heller said.

Ashley Murphy, 11, of Kensington, who has developmental delays, also goes to occupational therapy and speech therapy, said her mother Tami Murphy. But therapeutic riding is the most fun for her, she said.

While working with her students, Heller uses various exercises specialized for the 13 therapeutic riders she has each week. Fine motor skills are improved with games, such as ‘‘Mother May I” and a ring toss. Doing these activities on horseback improves balance and concentration. Social and memory skills are improved through an exercise where the rider has to go to each of the four volunteers that Heller uses to help her with the lessons and say their name. If the rider doesn’t remember it, he or she has to look the volunteer in the eye and ask their name.

It makes it all worth it for Heller when she sees how grateful her students are and how much they enjoy their lessons.

‘‘[Ashley] always leaves and says, ‘That was fun, I want to come back next week,’” Murphy said. ‘‘We’ve seen the calming effect it has on her.”