For centuries, humans have enjoyed a special relationship with horses whether it be for work or pleasure, the sensation of riding high atop these beautiful animals can awe and inspire everyone from little children to the elderly. It isn't surprising then, that today, horseback riding is also getting attention for its effectiveness in treating people with physical and mental disabilities.
Elsa Ayala grew up around horses in central North Carolina and always dreamed of having a horse farm of her own. But she soon realized that horse breeding alone wouldn't be enough to pay the bills, so she worked in various jobs to support her hobby. One of those jobs was driving people with disabilities to their various appointments where she noticed that most of her passengers also shared her interest in horses. She also learned about a new concept in rehabilitation called "therapeutic riding."
"So, I decided, 'OK, let's do it.' I had to get donations and worked on paperwork for about a year. Then, I got a donated horse, here, then a donated horse there," she says. Elsa Ayala's calls her ranch Om Ranch Stables where her riding therapy program, Chatham Equitherapy, Incorporated, is based. Ms. Ayala says people with disabilities - ranging from muscular diseases to mental retardation and emotional problems - can improve their coordination and self-esteem by learning to ride a horse.
"Someone with cerebral palsy for example, has a lot of tightness and they're not able to move their bodies; someone who is quadriplegic, you have to have someone on the side and someone leading the horse. The horses' movement emulates actual walking that these people don't experience because they spend hours and hours and days and days sitting in a wheelchair, immobile. So you put them on a horse and the horse's movement is very much like a person's walking. So, the muscles in their body become activated, just by the motion and they end up getting this therapy to their bodies that they wouldn't get if they weren't here," she says.
In horse riding therapy, the rider is assisted by a "lead walker" - a person guiding the horse - and a "side walker" who assists the rider from the side. The horses used are often older, they're gentle in nature, and don't excite easily. Riding trainer, Elsa Ayala says, "They are just so kind and tolerant. A special-needs rider, some of them are mentally challenged and might act kind of 'funny' they might start saying things or screaming or doing things. So the horse has to be calm and you can't overreact to something like that and these horses are like little saints."
In the business, those horses are referred to as "bomb-proof." There are more than 700 accredited horse therapy farms located throughout the United States. Most of them are members of NARAH - The North American Riders for the Handicapped Association, or they follow NARAH's guidelines. Elsa Ayala bases her fees on her customers' ability to pay and also receives financial support from donations and fundraisers. She says watching a customer's continuing progress gives her tremendous satisfaction.
"I can remember the first rider we started with Rawley, who was kind of scared and intimidated and didn't want to get on. So we had to be very patient and his parents really wanted him to learn. Now, he's great he can ride by himself," she says.
Rawley Kabrick, who has Downs Syndrome, is now 17-year-old. In addition to learning to ride a horse, Rawley is trained in how to groom and care for horses, and enjoys the social atmosphere of Elsa Ayala's ranch. His mother Millie talked about the physical as well as social benefits she has observed in her son.
"From a peer perspective, from a parent's perspective, the main thing is the social benefit and self-esteem. I can see the improvement physically from his improvement in posture, but it's the other things the feelings of mastery and confidence and all the people telling him how wonderful he is, up there doing so well," she says.
At Elsa Ayala's Om Ranch Stables in Pittsboro, North Carolina, feeding and brushing the horses and cleaning their stalls is also part of the Equitherapy program. Millie Kaybrick says her son Rawley "isn't wild about the brushing and cleaning part," making him not so very different from any typical teenager.