Kids in the Saddle

How horses can be therapists.

Kids in the Saddle

Photo: Gerri Photography


Beth Milner’s son Daniel began therapeutic riding at the tender age of three. Daniel has low muscle tone, especially through his core, and his language skills are delayed. When Daniel and Beth first arrived at the Community Association for Riding for the Disabled (CARD), he was unable to command his horse to, “walk on” (or “ho”); he could not speak the words.

That was in January 2010. Today, Daniel can give his horse commands and chat with his physiotherapist as he rides. Beth has noticed an increase in strength throughout Daniel’s body, which allows him to stand taller and climb stairs, “even without a railing.”

The use of horseback riding as therapy began in Europe as a way to help armed forces personnel rehabilitate after the Second World War. The practice gained worldwide attention when Lis Hartel of Denmark rode to a silver medal in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Hartel had become severely disabled after contracting poliomyelitis at the age of 23. Over the course of her riding career, she won two Olympic silver medals and was the Danish dressage champion seven times.

In Canada today, there are more than 100 member centres of the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association (CanTRA) helping 6,000 riders.

How therapeutic riding helps

The first time Daniel got on a horse, he, “just rode away and didn’t look back!” recalls Beth. “I was blown away.”

“When he came around the ring and I could see his face, he gave me the hugest smile through the glass wall,” Beth continues. “His smile was full of pride. I have since seen that smile many, many times, but that was one of the first times I had seen him smile like that and it brought tears to my eyes.”

Horses and horseback riding are beneficial to kids (and adults) with any number of difficulties, from physical and cognitive disabilities to emotional and social problems.

Children with muscular issues or mobility problems benefit from the strength and coordination building aspects of horseback riding. Horseback riding engages a person’s muscles from head to foot. The dynamic motion of the horse causes improvement in balance, coordination and motor planning. The motion of a horse, as it walks forward, engages the rider’s pelvis in movements that mimic independent walking.

“For a person who has never walked, it can be really freeing,” says Allie Lewis, Stable Manager at WindReach Farm, one of 44 therapeutic riding centres in Ontario ( “That is one of the key reasons horses are used.”

Children with cognitive delays are helped by the routines and skill building that comes from learning to ride and care for horses, while kids with emotional and socialization difficulties find that horses are calming and empathetic to humans. Children with behavioural problems can learn to mirror their behaviour through the horses. Horses read body language and react to signs of calmness or aggression. By observing how a horse reacts to body language, children see how other people may perceive their actions and can adjust their behaviour. They learn to control their emotions and express themselves appropriately.

Some therapy horses can also respond to sign language, which Allie says can, “help reinforce the usefulness of signing,” for a nonverbal child.

Because therapeutic riding introduces children to new experiences and gives them the opportunity to master new skills, they get a big boost in self-confidence, independence, and mental and emotional engagement. The pace of therapy is rider-specific and all achievements are important.

Jennifer Ayotte’s daughter Stephanie has been riding at WindReach Farm since elementary school. Stephanie, who is now 19, has severe intellectual challenges, lives with a seizure disorder called West Syndrome, and has chronic issues with low muscle tone. When Stephanie rides, there is an instructor, a leader for the horse, and a volunteer, who walks beside the horse as a spotter.

“A person such as Stephanie who is dependent for the majority of her daily living does not have a lot of opportunity to make many decisions for herself,” says Jennifer. “The therapeutic riding program allows Stephanie to make decisions while she is in control of her horse.”

Horseback riding adds a great deal of quality to Stephanie’s life. As Jennifer says, “Her smiles, thumbs up, clapping, laughing, and brief two-to-three-word sentences certainly let us know she loves her horse and riding.”

Riding geared to individual

Depending on the centre and the program the rider participates in, a lesson will range from a half-hour to an hour and may be exclusively riding or may include experience in stable husbandry and horse care. Riding lessons can take place in small groups or individually. The amount of assistance given during the lesson is specific to the rider’s abilities.

Qualified therapy instructors decide how much assistance a rider needs. Some riders will have side-walkers physically holding them on the horse, while others will have side-walkers as spotters only. The horse may be led, but as the rider progresses and gets more confident, the leader may decide to unhook the horse for part of the lesson.

The instructor also coordinates the lesson activities to best benefit each individual child and matches the rider to the horse, based on size, ability and temperament. Sometimes, the instructor will swap one horse for another, to help the rider continue to progress. (To find a qualified therapy instructor, see sidebar.)

Twelve year old sisters, Samantha and Nicole Bouffard, started riding last summer. They and their brother are triplets born at only 25 weeks, which can result in a wide variety of complications. Samantha and Nicole have different abilities and difficulties.

Samantha experiences fine and gross motor delays and is not as strong as other children her age. She also has difficulties with speech and some developmental delay. Samantha started on the smaller ponies but is gaining confidence and working her way up to bigger horses. Her mother, Lisa Bouffard, says, “She loves all animals and always has a huge smile on her face when the horses trot with her.”

Samantha’s favourite activity: “I like dismounting off of Jorje because it is like going down a slide. I want to ride Cinders (one of the big horses) one day.”

Her sister, Nicole, copes with a hearing impairment. Though she has no other cognitive or physical issues, Nicole benefits from involvement at a therapeutic riding centre because, as Lisa says, “she needs to have the instructions relayed to her because she can’t hear them.”

At first, Nicole says, “I wasn’t sure how the horses were going to react to me riding them.” But now, “I feel confident riding all of the horses – I really like Feature. He’s not too fast or too slow.”
Lisa gets much pleasure from watching her daughters during their lessons. “I feel proud of them and happy that they are doing something that they really enjoy.”

Miniatures assist learning

In addition to therapeutic riding centres, there are many farms or facilities in Ontario that offer equine-facilitated learning (EFL). Black Stallion Ranch ( is one of them. The ranch uses miniature horses to deliver EFL, explain owners Dave and Barb Miller. Children with autism spectrum disorders, as well as people who have sustained brain injury, come to spend time with and learn from the miniature horses. Recently, children recovering from cancer treatment have started coming to enjoy the horses too.

There is no riding involved; miniature horses are only 29 to 36 inches tall and weigh about the same as a grown man, between 150 and 250 pounds. They were bred centuries ago as companion animals. “They are the most manageable of all equines,” says Dave.

Children who come to the ranch start with an introduction to the 12 miniatures, and as they build confidence and skills, work their way up to harnessing and grooming the horses and eventually driving the horses, using one of the carts Dave builds in his shop. The 3,500 square-foot, heated arena allows the programs to run year round.

Programs are directed by the child’s abilities and personality. Some children learn to play games with the horses and work their way through obstacle courses, set up in the arena. Other children simply enjoy the company, like Jeffrey Tuck who comes and sits on the steps with miniature horse, Buttons, and, “just talks to him,” says Dave. While the boy pets Buttons, “the horse puts his head right down in his lap,” adds Barb. Sessions may be individual, in pairs, or in small groups. In addition to new skills, children are taught to have respect for themselves, the animals, and the equipment.

Horses well selected

It takes a special animal to work as a therapy horse. They must be patient, trustworthy and willing. Most miniatures are well suited to it. Larger breeds undergo a trial and training period during which they are introduced to special equipment and procedures and are assessed for good temperament. Those that become therapy horses work hard and are rewarded with the affections of some very loving kids.


Finding a Riding Therapy Centre

Locating a therapeutic riding centre is as easy as knowing where to look.  Accredited facilities and organizations will be registered with one or more of the following associations:


  • North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA)
  • Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association (CanTRA)
  • Ontario Therapeutic Riding Association (OnTRA)

Qualified instructors will have completed certification training that is provided or recognized by one or more of the bodies above.  The certification process typically takes a year and a half to two years, depending on the level achieved.  Certified instructors will have completed course work, hands on instruction, mentoring and formal examinations.  All instructors should have current First Aid and CPR certification.


The fees charged for riding programs vary by facility, starting at $10/hr for non-profits, up to and exceeding the $50 mark.  These fees do not represent the true cost of running these programs, however.  The Community Association for Riding for the Disabled (CARD) estimates the annual cost of maintaining a therapy horse at approximately $8,000.  For one rider to participate in a single 10 to 12 week therapy session, the facility incurs $1,500 in costs, of which only $540 – $720 are passed on to the rider.


Most riding centres rely on fundraising to make up the difference.  Some organizations, like CARD, are able to offer some financial assistance to families in need ( There are also opportunities for individuals to find private sponsorship.

Author: Jennifer Routledge

Jennifer Routledge is a freelance writer and mom;

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