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Riding a horse can help with fitness, coordination

Published Sept. 05, 2010 @ 11 p.m.

Oceancliffs TrailridePlenty of kids ask their parents for a pony. Practical city folks make excuses related to real estate, but it can't stop a kid from dreaming of riding the dusty cowboy trail or bounding the hills and dales of the countryside.

If your children harbor equestrian fantasies, there's a good argument for climbing aboard. Studies show horseback riding can teach lifelong lessons in confidence, discipline and physical coordination. And evidence is emerging that riding horses can take the form of physical or socio-emotional therapy.

"It's been clinically proven that just being in the vicinity of horses changes our brainwave patterns, says professional horseman Franklin Levinson of Maui Horse Whispering Experience in Hawaii and a proponent of the Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) method.

"They have a calming effect, which helps stop people becoming fixated on past or negative events - giving them a really positive experience."

The EFL method practiced by Levinson is particularly beneficial to children who have autism, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and bipolar disorders -- all of which may lead to difficulty communicating, interacting with people and following instructions.

"(A) horse reacts as a mirror to the person who's with him. He's a prey animal, so he wants to feel safe and is always on the lookout for predators," Levinson says. " ... (If) the person makes requests rather than demands, the horse will begin to cooperate.

"A child who is given just a little insight into dealing with a horse in the right way can become the natural leader the horse is looking for. The horse in return feels safe and peaceful and will cooperate with what the child asks of him. For children with mental and emotional disorders, the positive benefits of getting a horse to carry out these commands are often profound," Franklin says.

'They'll talk to horses'

Another way horses can help people is through hippotherapy, which uses the movement of a horse to help the rider improve his or her balance, posture, mobility and function. It is often used to help people who have cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, developmental delays, traumatic brain injury or stroke.

The rhythmic movement requires constant adjustment by the rider, stimulating muscular movement, neuromotor function and sensory processing.

The benefits of hippotherapy gained national attention in the 1980s, after former president Ronald Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, was shot and paralyzed. He underwent hippotherapy as part of his rehabilitation.

Both hippotherapy and therapeutic riding can help improve balance, posture, muscle tone, coordination and motor development.

Laura Bundy, owner and operator of Running Ridge Farm, a horseback-riding facility in Auburn, says there are significant emotional and physical benefits to horseback riding -- for people of all ages and abilities.

She opened the farm eight years ago with her husband, Curt, and her daughter, Samantha, who works as the horseback riding instructor. Though the facility is not formally certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, the principles of EFL are applied.

As a special-education teacher for Northwestern School District 2 in Palmyra, Bundy has experience working with children who have emotional disturbances and behavior disorders, and she can see the benefits of her sessions.

"We see kids who have anxiety and see them grow. Not every child who rides out here has a disability, but you can see every kid gain emotional growth, physical strength and balance - everybody improves," Bundy says.

"For some kids, relationship-building is difficult. Building a relationship with a horse is easy - they aren't judgmental. They'll take whatever you bring to them and give you a chance to prove yourself.

" ... We've had children here with autism who don't communicate very much, but they'll talk to the horses."

Bundy says riding also helps kids develop perseverance, confidence and physical strength. It also brings a rider's spine in alignment with the hips to improve posture and strengthen the core muscles.

Confidence and perseverance come from both physical and emotional aspects of riding, Bundy says.

"You aren't going to develop a relationship with a horse in three weeks. When kids fall down, they have to get up and get back on the horse. It teaches you that relationships take work, and that when you stumble in life, you get back up - and when you have the confidence, you're willing to try in other areas of life."

Bundy's daughter, Samantha, experienced these lessons first-hand.

"When I'm stressed, just grooming them is relaxing. They can sense your mood through touch, tone of voice, and through your hands. It has helped me to learn to socialize more and stay out of trouble. It's helped me to grow into an adult. The main reason why I decided to give riding lessons was to try to get more youth involved."

Horseback hints


  • Ask for references before you begin lessons with a facility or private instructor.
  • If lessons are for children, look for a friendly and attentive trainer who enjoys working with children. Children should always wear a helmet.
  • Check to see if horses appear well-groomed, well-fed, and properly housed.
  • If you are seeking hippotherapy or EFL to address a specific concern, be sure your instructor is qualified to address the issue.
  • If you decide to try horseback riding, take a trial lesson before making a financial commitment, or ease into it by learning more about horses through horse shows, clubs, camps, guest ranches, equine rescue sanctuaries, or by talking with private riding instructors.


The principles of Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) can be taught by anyone, but experts recommend this method be staffed by an educator, therapist, equine specialist or an instructor certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA).

The American Hippotherapy Association certifies occupational, speech, or physical therapists to conduct hippotherapy.

To find a certified AHA therapist, call the American Hippotherapy Association, Inc., at 877-851-4592 or go online at www.americanhippotherapyassociation.org


Running Ridge Farm, Curt and Laura Bundy, owners, Samantha Bundy, instructor: 3635 Ostermeier Road, Auburn. Phone: 483-2958.

Photo: T.J. Salsman/The State Journal-Register -- Molly Kelso, 14, who has cerebral palsy, has been riding horses at Running Ridge Farm for more than five years. She recently learned to canter with the horse.
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