As my law practice wined down in the years leading up to retirement, I spent money and lots of effort getting certified as a therapeutic riding instructor with PATH International. Retirement seemed a good time for me to give back and meld my love of teaching special needs students. Teaching is something I had done for 11 years, but my love of horses, I have always had. While I was teaching, I often took one or two amenable students to my barn with me on the weekend, not to ride but mostly to clean or just have fun. Horses touched my students in a variety of ways—encouraging speech, eliciting emotions, controlling aggression. However, it wasn’t until after retirement that I realized how powerful a tool therapeutic riding can be for manifesting positive change.
In 2012, I retired and moved to Pennsylvania, away from anything I knew. Spending some time riding up and down streets to accustom myself to new surroundings, I created this half-baked system. Take the first right coming out of town and each day make the next right. At first, I thought I would start making left turns at some point, but I never got that far. Eventually, I posited, I would know everything about Milford, PA.
After making right turns down streets First through Sixth, I made another on Seventh, and up the hill. This street was far longer than any other, and after passing a llama farm, I noticed a huge indoor arena for horseback riding, and a colorful sign that said “GAIT Therapeutic Riding Center.” I had no idea that within a 15 minute drive from my house was GAIT TRC, a PATH International Premier Accredited Center… a place where I could volunteer my services as a certified instructor.
“PATH” stands for Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemen, an internationally respected organization. I emailed GAIT offering my services and, as if they had been waiting for me forever, the GAIT herd welcomed me and I never looked back.
At GAIT Therapeutic Riding Center I discovered that participants, volunteers, staff and parents all experienced the same positive benefits of being around horses as I had with my past students. Recently I pushed to enter the Center in a contest to win one of twenty Gypsy Vanner Horses from Lexlin Gypsy Horse Ranch. I wrote the application. I encouraged people to vote once a day for sixty days. Little did I know this project of mine would take off and we would come in second out of eighty centers with over thirty thousand votes and able to choose a beautiful mare named Breeze. Everything involved with horses and therapeutic riding seemed to manifest positive outcomes for all involved.
Today, I serve on the Board of Directors for GAIT, teach, plan programs, and have acquired a new certification as Equine Specialist for Mental Health and Learning. I’m even in process of becoming a PATH faculty member so I can teach the new instructors to become Equine Specialists. Again, horses and therapeutic riding has manifested more in my life than I could have ever imagined.
Horses and therapeutic riding have changed my life in completely unexpected ways. Continue reading for how it can help you, too.
How resources like GAIT bring the healing power of horses to others
Improve your health by interacting with animals
Recent research shows that the effects of vibrations produced by horses during horseback riding lead to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which has been found to improve learning in children. Another study on horseback riding exercise revealed that it decreased depression in teenagers with emotional disorders.
Other studies found that children with attention deficit disorder and severe emotional disturbances who participated in horseback riding exercises found significant improvement in behavioral deficits and depression. Horseback riding exercises were reported to influence behavioral and emotional changes in children with autism. The exercise has reported to relieve symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder when compared with other animal-assisted therapies.
Petting our pets has long been known to raise the levels of oxytocin in owners. This results in lower blood pressure and many other benefits. BeatCancer.org outlines the healing benefits of touching a horse for cancer patients in this article.
In Horse Sense and the Human Heart, psychotherapists Adele and Marlena McCormick convey the enormous comforting qualities of horses: “Horses provide a wonderful source of comfort. They understand body language and emotions like no other animal, and act as a mirror for our thoughts and feelings. Interestingly enough, our horses have been attracted to and curious about most individuals suffering from any kind of problem. They know when something is wrong and will alter their normal behavior to make contact. Horses approach more slowly and carefully than with the rest of us, knowing when they are kind but wounded. Time and time again we have watched our horses offer simple gestures of comfort and affection.”
Being at GAIT TRC is similar to Forest Bathing
Forest bathing, also known as Shinrin-yoku, was recognized in Japan in 1982 as a way to counter stress and fight degenerative illnesses such as heart disease. It’s like sunbathing. All you need to do is find a forest or a park and wander around enjoying “sensory experiences.”. Views of a stream, the sounds of birds, the changing smells, textures and tastes all comprise the experience.
Concrete benefits of forest bathing are still being researched. However, a study by Japan’s Nippon Medical School and Chiba University explains that trees emit organic compounds called phytoncides, which may have a profound impact on your immune system markers long after a forest bathing session. More positive effects could include lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels.
You are rarely indoors at GAIT, and are among the forest in a rural setting. The barn is open air, and the brushing, combing and feeding of horses all occur there. The chores that need to be done weekly include mucking, gardening, shoveling, repairing. If you wish to interact with the riders you can sidewalk after a two hour training. That lets you accompany a rider next to a horse and help the student follow directions given by the instructor.
Walking with Labyrinths
There are three labyrinths on premises, one for wheelchairs, one for walking, and one for the horses. Walking a labyrinth is said to relax you and help you meditate. They are the classical or seventh circuit labyrinths. Seven circuits refer to the seven paths that lead to the center or goal. This is an ancient design and is found in most cultures, dating back more than 4000 years. Also known as the Cretan Labyrinth it is associated with the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. This design was found on Cretan coins. Labyrinths can create a heightened awareness of the human condition and aid psychological and spiritual growth. To build a labyrinth is to create a sacred space. To walk a labyrinth is to imbue it with power and meaning. The more a labyrinth is used the more powerful it becomes as a symbol of transformation.
To download a handout with guidelines for walking a labyrinth, click here (https://www.veriditas.org/resources/Documents/Handouts/Walking%20the%20Labyrinth.pdf)
Walking can keep you flexible and aid in weight management
There are lots of health benefits to walking. Walking can raise you mood, get your creative juices flowing, help you lose inches, decrease your risk of chronic disease, make you “regular” and encourage you to try to other goals you may have.
Mind Key shared a few personal and researched benefits of walking and being outside in our March 2017 article on getting motivated to get outdoors. This article, courtesy of Prevention Magazine lists a few others.
But we all know that walking makes us feel better.
Helping people makes you feel good inside and out.
Teaching is rewarding in and of itself. For instance, teaching special needs students is very rewarding for me. As mentioned above, horses encourage quantum leaps in students in their speech, physical strength, flexibility and socialization, and it’s a recipe for a perfect way to spend your time.
Being around young people keeps you young
The GAIT volunteers tend to be younger although, there’s some old timers like me. They keep us young when we hear the latest slang, or they tell us about their lives and even ask for advice. These “kids” jump to help you when you need it and are there for the right reasons. Hence why we have a mentorship program for older, more experienced volunteers mentor the newer volunteers. Overall, it makes you feel good about the future of our youth.
In conclusion, exercise, including exercise that incorporates being outside with animals and the camaraderie of friends, is a trifecta of benefits for you and your health. It probably doesn’t happen often that all of this can happen in one place, but it has at GAIT.
To learn more about GAIT and how it can help you, or you can help others, please visit us online at gaittrc.org
GAIT THERAPEUTIC RIDING CENTER
314 Foster Hill Rd.
P.O. Box 69
Milford, PA 18337
Search for @GAIT.TRC on Facebook,com.
(please contact us for a full list of references for this article).