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GallopNYC: The Benefits of Therapeutic Riding

At first blush, horses and autism don’t seem to have much in common.  But I have learned that many people with autism relate easily to animals.  (This is also true of many people without autism.)  And I have seen that working with horses can unlock skills and abilities in people with autism, surprising themselves, their parents and their teachers.

Over the past six years, I have been on an amazing ride, as I have helped create GallopNYC. Our mission is “to improve the lives of New York City children and adults facing developmental, emotional, social, and physical challenges through the benefits of therapeutic horseback riding.”

We offer lessons to our core constituency of people with disabilities. Almost half of our riders have autism. Our riders also include children with physical disabilities like cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and polio. We also teach at-risk teens and kids who have experienced neglect and abuse. We offer a program for wounded veterans, and we also offer physical therapy. GallopNYC focuses primarily on low-income children and adults with disabilities, and two-thirds of our riders are offered lessons for free or at a discounted cost. GallopNYC does not receive government funding; our program is support by a passionate network of individual donors and corporate and foundation grant programs.

In just a few short years, GallopNYC has grown from two riders per week to 150.  And we have a waiting list  — a testament both to the need for our program and the results we see.    If you came with me to take a look at GallopNYC, on any given day you might see a boy with autism finding his voice to say “trot on,” or a child kiss his horse spontaneously, or a rider who normally cannot sit still quietly guide his horse in a pattern. In every case, as parents, teachers and counselors tell us, GallopNYC changes the lives of people with disabilities and special needs.

A recently completed study confirms what we see every day: “Children with autism between the ages of 7 and 12 showed improved cognition, communication, and motivation after participating in specific equine assisted activities (EAA).” The research shows that riding, grooming, and interacting with horses had a noticeable, positive effect on study participants. For more information about this research, please visit the Horses and Humans Research Foundation website.

Teachers report that they see “astronomical” gains in classroom skills of students who ride with us. This unsolicited comment from a teacher is typical: “It is amazing to watch my unruliest students calm down, my most scattered students focus, my quietest students shout, and my least expressive students laugh when they interact with you and the horses… I feel like we can never do enough to express our gratitude.”

Why does working with horses help autism?  We don’t know for sure, but we do have ideas.  One is that horses have a calming effect on people, which helps stem anxiety and allows better focus.  I believe the ability to ride and the success riders experience motivates riders and reduces negative behavior.  Dr. Temple Grandin points out that horses and people with autism experience the world in similar ways.  Both are acutely aware of the sensory world around them, and at times react to inputs which those around them have not noticed.  Both are nonverbal (horses always, people with autism frequently.)  She suggests that horses and people with autism relate to each other in deep ways.  Certainly horses are highly attuned to human behavior.  Some feel that the immediate and clearly readable reaction of a horse is easier for people with autism to read than human reactions.  Or more simply, horses don’t lie, dissemble or offer empty courtesies.

How did I get involved in therapeutic riding?  I grew up on a farm and had horses.  Farm life can be lonely and I enjoyed horses and riding.   Years passed and I had little time for horses until I moved to Hong Kong.   There I volunteered for a therapeutic riding program where frankly I was more focused on the horses than the riders. But when I saw first-hand how effective therapeutic riding could be, I was sold.  After returning to New York, I joined a group of like-minded people to found GallopNYC.   Eventually after passing tests and meeting standards established by PATH International, I became a certified instructor.

That sounds so simple and straightforward, but these past six years have in some ways been the most challenging and satisfying of my life.  There are days when nothing seems to be working and I wonder if I have been imagining the benefits of what we do. Then suddenly a child smiles or speaks or picks up his reins.  We all smile and even tear up.  The days when we find a way to engage a child is a very good day, and we have many, many good days.

As a bonus, I get to spend my days with horses, these gentle, strong animals that I can only handle well if I set aside the 500 things on my to-do list – the funds I need to find, the uncooked dinner, the shopping list, my own problems – and focus on the needs and anxieties of those magnificent animals.  It is this focus that helps me then find the key to each child.

One more thing I’d like to mention is my deep respect for the parents of our riders.   Our riders’ parents love their children deeply and work tirelessly to help them live better lives.  Many of them face the heart-wrenching decision of whether to place their children in residential care. Parents must fight for every benefit and therapy for their children.  The simplest acts – an errand, a phone call, a car ride – are fraught with problems for parents of children with autism.  At GallopNYC, we can give parents a chance to be proud of their children, and we can help their children develop needed skills. Parents thank us for this almost every day.   And I thank them for entrusting their children to GallopNYC and our horses.

Alicia Kershaw
Executive Director

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.

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