Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Alternative Medicine: Horses Helping the Handicapped

By Colleen Humfreville

On January 25, at the Anaheim Equestrian Center, located at Rancho Del Rio Stables, the large arena used by Ann Henry is getting prepped for the upcoming lesson: multicolored hula hoops are being placed on the ground, the basketball net is moved over to the corner of the arena, and several orange traffic cones are positioned so that a small obstacle course is created. Behind the arena, there are stables with tin-covered roofs filled with an array of horses; twenty-two in all. The wind, starting to pick up as afternoon approaches, blows the scent of dust, horse droppings, and the well-worn leather of saddles and reins.

After a couple of horses are brushed and the saddles and stirrups are positioned, the first lesson of the afternoon begins. In his boot cut blue jeans, long sleeved navy blue sweater, and boots that shine with new brown leather, David rides Jimmy, a large beige paint horse with white legs, through the obstacle course, weaving in and out of cones as he works his way around the large arena. The helmet sliding down over his visually-impaired eyes, he mumbles to himself as Marcia, his mother, fixes his helmet. Ready to continue on with his riding lesson, Ann, as the instructor, reminds him to keep his head up. “Chin up and say cheese,” says Ann as David gives a big smile. He then approaches the next obstacle on the course: the basketball net. As Jimmy positions himself parallel to the net with the help of a volunteer leading him with a set of reins, Marcia hands the basketball to David. He takes his shot at the kid-sized portable plastic basketball net that sits a couple of feet away from him. The net vibrates as the ball hits the orange rail and it goes straight through the basket. Marcia and Ann, his personal cheerleaders, both clap enthusiastically as Marcia yells, “Nothing but net!.” David, laughing and bouncing briefly on the horse, smiles even wider as his too-big helmet slides down and covers his eyes again.

*Photo from http://www.helpinghooves.org/about-the-program-and-horses.php.

Unlike a typical basketball game though, David, like several other riders that work with Ann, always wears a helmet during these lessons. Others have to be held on the horse so that they don’t lose their balance. Some are not even physically able to play. What all these people have in common is that they are either mentally or physically handicapped, whether because of autism, cerebral palsy, or a seeing or hearing impairment. Ann, as a NARHA (North America Riding for the Handicapped Association) Certified Instructor, works with them, using equine therapy to try and improve their self-esteem, increase verbal communication, and work on balance, among other things. “Helping Hooves Equine Therapy Program,” the therapeutic program that she founded, provides a resource for these riders, using horses to communicate with them in a way that no one else can.


Donning her light-brown work boots, faded blue jeans that flare at the bottom, and wearing a black O’Neill t-shirt that contrasts with her light-blonde hair styled into a ponytail, Ann Henry walks around the arena like a pro. It is clear she knows what she’s doing as she makes sure before every lesson that each horse has a blanket that sits beneath the saddle on the horse’s back and that the stirrups are adequately adjusted for each individual rider.

Ann has been around horses since her own childhood “since [she] was in [her] momma’s tummy”, volunteering at a local barn in Bellingham, Washington (her hometown) for six years, working her way up to a riding instructor, and then to assistant trainer. She moved to California after graduating high school, and took up teaching and volunteering at a therapeutic center in Palos Verdes. She then worked for a year to become a NARHA Certified Instructor, later founding “Helping Hooves Equine Therapy Program,” her own therapeutic program, at the Anaheim Equestrian Center.

“Helping Hooves Equine Therapy Program,” focuses on using the horses as a therapy tool, helping the riders to achieve emotional, social, educational, and behavioral goals. The movement of the horse is more effective than other activities such as swimming or walking, principally because of the riders’ connection with an animal as large and as powerful as a horse. Also known as hippotherapy, the treatment is a physical, speech, or occupational therapy that utilizes the multidimensional movements of the horse to achieve these goals as well as improving balance, posture, mobility and function. The rhythm of a horse’s gait has been said to closely resemble an individual’s walking rhythm, which is one reason why hippotherapy is so successful.


David Chester has been riding since he was three years old, with his mother Marcia right by his side. She’s been volunteering at therapeutic centers since he was little, and regularly attends all of his lessons at “Helping Hooves Equine Therapy Program” so that she can be there to support him. He first started working with Ann this past November when he and his family moved from Wisconsin. “I wanted to find him a program as close as possible [as to what was available] to where we were living,” says David’s mother Marcia. By having David join a therapeutic riding program similar to the one he was previously in, it allows him to continue the therapy he had started in Wisconsin.

Ann’s lessons are specifically tailored to each individual rider. Watching how each rider performs in the first lesson, she can “tell what they need and what they want to work on”. She also speaks with the parents, so that she is aware of what they want their child to work on, or themselves, if they’re the ones riding. It’s a multi-step process, one that lends itself well to individual improvement.

In David’s case, in order to work with his mild cerebral palsy and visual impairment, during a lesson he usually does exercise on the horse, stretching his arms up and out, moving his arms around in circles. It gets him a little more limber. He’s also been working on learning to steer the horse left and right by pulling on the reins to let the horse know where he wants to go, simultaneously improving his own knowledge of left and right. Cause and effect play an important role in his lessons; Ann has taught him that if he says “walk on,” the horse will start to walk in the direction that he indicates with the reins. Next up for him during his lesson is horse basketball; trying to shoot the ball in the hoop helps to improve his balance. His favorite part is trotting. “He loves the bumpiness of the horse. He loves the motion,” says Marcia. Throughout the entire lesson, he’s using muscles that he usually doesn’t use. For example, since he is vision impaired, he has a tendency to drop his chin down, and since he’s been doing this for such as long time (he’s now eighteen years old), it’s weakened some of his muscles.

Therapeutic riding, though, has clearly benefitted him; his mother can easily notice improvements. Working with a horse for so long has helped with his overall walking, by improving his gait. Just recently, he has been able to keep his chin up for most of the lesson without either Ann or Marcia having to remind him. Towards the end of each lesson, he does start to get tired and his chin will drop. “Overall, though, he’s been doing really well since he started horseback riding,” says Marcia. In addition to the therapeutic riding, he enjoys swimming in his family’s warm water pool, walking, and using equipment at a physical therapist’s to strengthen his muscles in his legs and his back. Marcia plans to keep him enrolled at “Helping Hooves” for a long time, though. “It gives him something that he really likes to do. [I love] just seeing that smile on his face,” says Marcia.


Beginning riders at “Helping Hooves Equine Therapt Program” also share this same joy that experienced riders have. Samantha and Joshua Dao, two riders who recently signed up for Ann’s lessons, have only attended eight times now, and already they look forward to each Monday when they get to ride for forty-five minutes on their ponies Lady and Ebony, both as dark as the burned out embers after a fire. Tu, their mother, first signed them up for “Helping Hooves Equine Therapy Program” the first week of January; Samantha, age seven, has Asperger’s Syndrome, and Joshua, age five, has autism.

During the most recent lesson, Samantha shows up to the lesson wearing elastic purple pants, with a white shirt that has purple butterflies on it that match the pants perfectly. Her bright clothes match her vibrant personality as she bounces around and talks with her mother before the lesson starts; while Joshua, led by his step-father David, walks more sullenly, wearing a more uniform green polo shirt and blue slacks. Not holding onto the reins, Joshua’s attention is diverted to everything except the horse. “He doesn’t talk yet,” says David. “Tu says that Sammie acted the same way when she was three, but she’s talkative now.” Whenever Joshua is walking around, he’ll commonly shake his hands, a symptom of autism.

As the lesson commences, Sammie shouts out “walk on!” whenever prompted by the volunteer leading the horse. It is evident what she enjoys the most though. On the straightaway parts of the arena, Sammie laughs as she gets the chance to trot for a few seconds as the pounding of Lady’s feet hitting the dirt can be heard. “Sammie loves that,” says Tu. Joshua, on the other hand, is held on the horse by his step-father and another volunteer; he tends to get tired, so without someone there holding him up, he would fall off Ebony, the pony that he rides. Ann specifically pairs both Sammie and Joshua with ponies since they’re not working on muscle tone; also, since they are smaller and more physically suited to the size of a pony. “[Joshua] tries to get off sometimes, and if you’ve got him on a big horse, it’s scarier for him and it’s harder to keep him on,” says Ann.

“We’re working on trying to get them to pay attention. If you saw [Samantha], she’s very energetic and all over the place. [Her parents] are trying to get her to pay attention and focus. And they’re trying to get [Joshua] just to stay on the horse. He’s non-verbal so far… so we’re trying to get him to communicate more,” Ann continues.

Although there have not been any significant behavioral improvements for these two yet, therapeutic riding proves promising. In fact, in a study conducted in 2009, autistic children who had an hour per week of therapeutic horseback riding for twelve weeks were compared with autistic children who did not receive any horseback riding intervention. The results from the experiment were clear: autistic children exposed to therapeutic horseback riding exhibited greater social motivation, as well as decreased distractibility and sedentary behaviors.

Tu plans to keep Samantha and Joshua enrolled in therapeutic riding. During every lesson Tu is right out by the arena, taking pictures of her children as they play basketball or trot around the arena; she’s proud of what they’re accomplishing. “There are some good days and some bad days; [Joshua] gets tired sometimes. They really enjoy it though,” says Tu.


Therapeutic riding offers beneficial opportunities for mentally and physically handicapped riders, for both children and adults. Although, Ann tends to work with more children, typically one adult for every ten children. With the horse connecting with the rider, improvement is possible is almost any case. Even with cases such as cancer, the horse is a great motivator, and during the lesson, distracts the rider from the outside world, and instead allows them to focus on what is happening right there in the lesson, in that moment.

“It’s really rewarding because you see such a change in all the students. You know, I’ve had people that aren’t very mobile and they ride the horse for a year or so and they can walk [and] move much better,” says Ann.

Clearly, the horse communicates with the rider in a way that no human can.


For the original interview, please go to “Helping Hooves Equine Therapy.”

Reporting Notes
(1) Interviews with the families of two riders at “Helping Hooves” and one with Ann Henry, the founder of the equine therapy program
(2) Three hour observation of riding lessons in January, and a one-two hour observation of lesson in February
(3) Photographs from “Helping Hooves Equine Therapy Program” website of the horses that Ann uses for her riding lessons
(4)) Article on examiner.com about “Helping Hooves Equine Therapy Program”; “Helping Hooves Equine Therapy Program” website; photographs taken from the observed lessons; an article about an equine therapy program at Free Rein Therapeutic Riding, describing the experience of riding for a girl with cerebral palsy; a study assessing the effect of therapeutic horseback riding on social functioning in children with autism; article in “The Spokesman-Review” about the experience of Whitworth University students in testing horse-riding in order to treat cerebral palsy; a graduate project serving as a guide to equine therapy for Southern California

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