Horses in Colorado State University's equine sciences program have many jobs that support the students in various classes. They are also used as therapy horses in equine assisted activities with students studying with Dr. Sharon Bulter, the instructor for therapeutic riding at CSU. Front Range Exceptional Equestrians also use CSU's facility, horses and student instructors to assist with their disabled clients. Only horses that have passed a physical exam, and have the temperament to handle riders with special needs can participate.
Equine assisted therapy programs have gained attention lately for their work with disabled veterans, but the disabled population they serve is very diverse.
Dr. Sharon Butler, an instructor at CSU, teaches students in the equine sciences program to become certified instructors in therapeutic riding.
“Equine assisted activities and therapies is a general term and covers everything,” Dr. Butler said. “Therapeutic riding is a type of equine assisted activity where the goal is to learn how to ride a horse, to learn riding skills and horse handling skills.”
Students, like Dana Ratcliffe, gain experience teaching disabled children and adults in the northern Colorado area at CSU’s equine campus. They also complete volunteer teaching hours with Front Range Exceptional Equestrians, a local non-profit.
“I was attracted to equine assisted therapy because I have always loved working with animals and helping people,” said Ratcliffe. “Growing up I volunteered at a camp for disabled children, and it sparked a passion in me to help those with disabilities. When I found out that we could use horses, in equine assisted therapy to help kids with disabilities, I became hooked.”
The series of classes that students can take from Dr. Butler focuses on assisted therapy riding. Hippotherapy, another type of equine assisted activity involves occupational, physical, and speech therapists using the movement of horses to help their patients improve in these areas. In therapeutic riding, the process of learning to ride helps improve motor skills and cognitive function.
“A lot of the riders are there to learn how to ride a horse,” said Emily Geeslin, a senior equine science major. “So we’re not looking for their benefits with their disability or their day to day functioning. That’s just an added bonus.”
Participant riders must meet specific medical perquisites before they can ride horses. They cannot be prone to seizures or be taking medication that can cause them. They also cannot have axial cranial disorders like Down syndrome, which could be negatively impacted by riding. The volunteer riders for Dr. Butler’s classes come from the local community.
“We have people with all types of disabilities,” said Butler. “We work on things like improving muscle tone and muscle strength, being able to use their hands and legs with motor skills. We also have riders with cognitive disabilities. So we work on more educational things.”
Geeslin said riders are grouped by age and type of disability and then the activities are tailored to them. The certification program starts with the classes at CSU, but also involves written exams, teaching hours, preparing and executing a riding lesson, as well as demonstrating their own riding ability to a set of examiners. Students can become certified under Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, International while they are still in school.
“Dr. Butler's class has introduced me to more people who can benefit from therapeutic riding that I ever thought possible,” said Ratcliffe. “I have learned a lot from her and I am proud to have been taught by her. She has shown me that equine assisted therapy can help people in a variety of ways; whether it be emotionally, physically, mentally, or behaviorally.”
Watch a video of riders using CSU's equine facility as part of Front Range Exceptional Equestrians therapeutic riding program.