Horses and the Handicapped - Riding to Improve Life
By Bill Johnson / January 1, 2013
"Up, down, up, down, up, down," chants Alison Plaza as she runs beside a trotting horse. In the saddle on the brown and white American spotted draft horse is Rett Lewis of Coral Springs. Plaza is a certified therapeutic riding instructor. Lewis has lived his 35 years with Down syndrome.
On this day, he is one of four riders in the arena at Horses and the Handicapped of South Florida, a non-profit therapeutic riding program at Tradewinds Park in Coconut Creek. Plaza is coaching them on the way to "post" -- to coordinate their movements with the motion of the horse.
Lewis has been doing this for 28 years. "He's the dean of the place," says his dad, David Lewis. "The biggest contribution (from the program) is that it builds muscle tone," he says. "For every movement the horse makes, you must make a counter move, and that helps muscle tone."
Lewis' riding also gives him a special place in the family, something that is his activity. He's the only one in the family who rides.
The horses are trotting when a rider has a bit of trouble slowing the horse and squeals. "What do you do when the horse won't stop?" asks Plaza. "You shorten the reins to the yellow (mark) and say 'Whoa.'"
"Hallelujah," a rider shouts, as his horse slows to a stop.
"Did she stop when you told her to?" Plaza asks. "You have to tell her how proud you are."
And the rider does, while patting the horse approvingly.
The four riders in the arena are among 120 or so who will ride during a year. They are all ages -- from four to 75 -- and have a wide range of disabilities.
Advocates of therapeutic riding say there are many benefits, including balance, coordination, strength, muscle tone, and improved response to visual, vocal and tactile information. Riding also builds confidence and self-esteem.
Autistic people can benefit from this activity, says Molly Murphy, the program outreach manager. "It takes autistic people out of their sensory overload," she says.
She knows first-hand the benefits of riding. Because of cerebral palsy, she rode for fifteen years. "It improved my self-confidence, made me more outgoing, and the person I am today," says Murphy, who joined the staff out of dedication to the program.
Another parent who enthusiastically supports the program is Tammy Hands of Boca Raton. On the organization's web site, she tells the story of her daughter, who began riding at age four. She says the riding improved her daughter's speech, as well as her motor skills.
Instructor Plaza began as a volunteer, after teaching riding in England. "I fell in love with working with people with special needs," she says.
The program, which is certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, has operated for nearly thirty years. It now leases land at Tradewinds Park. Operating costs are nearly $500,000 a year, with budget money coming from grants, donations and various fundraising events. Horses are donated. Volunteers are essential.
To help cover costs, there is a variable fee, depending on the type of riding that best suits the rider. One example is a lesson each week for ten weeks at $50 a lesson. Murphy explains there is also a sliding scale, based on income.
To learn more, donate or volunteer, visit the organization's web site, www.hhsfl.org, or call
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