Horse therapy

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, September 26th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: equine therapy.

We humans have long teamed up with horses to do practical things like farming and transportation. But over the last few decades they’ve started serving another important purpose: therapy.

REICHARD: Equine therapy centers can help people with physical, mental and emotional disabilities.

WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg visited a horse therapy center that helps people with physical disabilities. She brings us this story from Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: A dark minivan pulls up and parks outside the Jackson Hole Therapeutic Riding Association. A few minutes later, Luisa Ayala and her son Ryan emerge. Five-year-old Ryan is in a wheelchair.

He has a condition that prevents his muscles from growing as fast as the rest of his body. The result: he’s weak. Walking and standing are difficult for him.  

AUDIO: [Sound of Ryan wheeling]

Ryan wheels past the stables of white, brown, and black horses chomping on hay. Occupational therapist Jessica Eastman greets him at the center’s arena.

EASTMAN: Hi, Ryan! Yeah, wouldn’t want the horse to be sad if you didn’t come. How’s kindergarten?

Together they wait for his horse, Charlie Brown, to arrive.

AUDIO: [Sound of Ryan letting out excited cry]

Now Ryan has to mount Charlie Brown. Some adults use an electric lift to get on the horse. But Eastman uses a different method for Ryan. She wheels him up a ramp onto a platform so that he’s even with the horse’s back.

EASTMAN: Alright buddy we are going to stand up!

Ryan then stands and takes two shuffling steps long enough for Jessica to hoist him onto Charlie Brown’s back.

RYAN: 123 over to you Zach.

Three volunteers help Ryan and Charlie Brown complete a clover leaf pattern around three barrels. One volunteer guides the horse by the reins. The other two walk on either side, holding onto Ryan’s ankles…just in case he falls.  

JESSICA: Do you remember how we get this horse to go?


The horse’s swaying and turning motions force Ryan to adjust…improving his strength and balance.

JESSICA: When you turn on a horse, it’s, you automatically get forced to the outside. Um, so he’s a little weaker on one side, so going in the opposite direction will force them to engage those muscles to sit up.

After several laps, Jessica tells Ryan to slowly turn around in the saddle. He concentrates and carefully lifts his right leg over the saddle, pivots and lifts his left leg over Charlie Brown’s rump. Now he’s sitting backwards.

JESSICA: Riding backwards is incredibly hard. Um, so that just increases the difficulty of doing anything. You’re moving backwards, you know, so you don’t, you can’t use your visual sense so you see where you’ve been, but you have to rely on your, your balance and your muscle control to keep yourself up.

While riding backwards, Ryan works on fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Eastman hands him a play fishing pole. He has to hook a plastic fish to the end and balance the fish on the hook while the horse walks.

When the horse stops, Ryan has to unhook the fish and throw it back into the pond… a bucket of water.

He gets faster and his aim gets better each time he repeats the game.

AUDIO: [Sound of celebrating Ryan putting fish in bucket]

Ryan has been coming to Jackson Hole Therapeutic Riding Association for three years. His mom Luisa says he used to barely stay on the saddle, but he wanted to come because he loved the horses.

LOUISA: He’s motivated with the horses a lot. There’s something I can’t explain, but it’s helping him a lot. He can’t lose one session because he will be sad.

Christi Yannelli is a licensed horse instructor here. She says when the center opened 25 years ago, only a handful of people were looking for equine therapy. Since then, awareness of what horses can do for people has grown.

YANELLI: We have now for the first time had to start a wait list…

One reason for the waitlist is the riding association struggles to find enough horses suited for equine therapy.

YANELLI: You have to have a horse that can, you know, handle a rider that might have a seizure on its back and that can go through, you know, a, a mounting block where a rider is being electronically lifted onto the horse. Horses that have all sorts of different props around them that are being used within a lesson.

Different horses work better with different kinds of disabilities.

YANELLI: So the most common we see are individuals on the autistic spectrum. Um, we have individuals with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, um, it can be something such as vision impairment, hearing impairments. You can match that rider to a horse that will help them develop.

Equine therapy can be expensive, and insurance companies rarely pay for it. Here, the center relies on local supporters to donate feed and pasture for the horses. That keeps overhead costs low. Donors also fund scholarships, so the center doesn’t have to turn families away. But even when cost isn’t a factor, equine therapy isn’t for everyone.

YANELLI: It could be a rider that’s never been on a horse before, and he’s terrified. I mean sitting on top of a 1200-pound animal sometimes can cause a lot of anxiety. So when we get individuals that have fear, sometimes it can be hard to get them comfortable.

But for those who do choose equine therapy, horses can reach them in a way other therapies sometimes can’t. Jessica Torgusen and Chris Miller’s four-year-old son Mason has severe ADHD. He is in several types of therapies, but Torgusen says equine therapy helped him find his voice.

TORGUSON: It’s really helped with everything because he wasn’t talking before we started last summer and by the end of the season he was saying words. He just loves the horses.

Today, Mason is using one word a lot. No. No. No. He doesn’t want to do anything that therapist Jessica Eastman asks. But even when he’s saying “no,” he’s reluctantly following his therapist’s instructions.

MILLER: If we were at home trying to do that same thing, I don’t think he would that for me, but when he’s here on the horse, it’s like he does everything they tell him to do, so it’s kinda cool to see.

Gradually Mason calms down. At the end of his session, before Eastman lifts him off, Mason thanks his horse, Two Socks.

EASTMAN: Two Socks has to go eat his dinner! Alright, guys, we’ll see you next week!

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Jackson, Wyoming.

(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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2 comments on Horse therapy

  1. Wayne Muilenburg says:

    I really enjoyed the story, thank you! Is there way I can contact Luisa Ayala and her son Ryan?

  2. Dave Snyder says:

    Just wanted to write you a quick note in regards to your podcast article this week in regards to equine therapy. It was good to hear this brought into the news to let people know of the great benefits and wonderful organizations that are using this type of therapy. Our one daughter had volunteered at a facility for over four years in their equine therapy area before leaving last year to head off to college to pursue her other passion – an American Sign Language degree. She enjoyed the equine therapy so much she was able to get certified as an equine therapy instructor. Little did we know at the time we would be using the same therapy this year.

    Back in July our son was in a very serious car accident that left him (among other things) with a brain injury. One of his therapies he received during his recovery process was equine therapy! It was a blessing to see what our daughter had worked with for many years be used in our son’s life, even though she was not performing the therapy! So thanks again for the article!

    BTW – our son is recovering wonderfully by God’s mercy – but that is another amazing story. 

    God is good.

    Dave Snyder
    Mountville, PA

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