Horseback riding as therapy began in 1952, when Liz Hartel of Denmark who, despite being handicapped by polio, won a silver medal for dressage at the 1952 Olympics in Finland.
The disease had left her with paralyzed legs. Nevertheless, she was able to get back on her horse, Jubilee and began riding to rebuild her strength. By 1952 she had regained enough strength and coordination to win the equestrian event.
Her experience inspired a Norwegian therapist to establish a riding group for children with special needs. Soon after, England also began offering therapeutic riding to children.
Therapeutic horseback riding came to both the United State and Canada in1960 with the formation of the Community Association of Riding of the Disabled.
In 1969 the Cheff Center for the Handicapped was established in Michigan, which remains the oldest and largest center intended specifically for people with disabilities. Then in 1969 the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) was formed. Currently, at 760 NARHA riding centers more than 30,000 individuals with disabilities find a sense of independence through horseback riding.
What started as a success story in 1952 soon evolved into a worldwide effort of dedicated ranch owners, therapists, and a few special horses. They are joined statewide by the Pennsylvania Council on Therapeutic Horsemanship and nationally by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA).
According to DeWayne B. Greenlee, Executive Director PA Council on Therapeutic Horsemanship, some ranches such as Harts to Horses are certified through the Pennsylvania Qualified Instructor Training program (PQI).
PQI is designed to help educate and inform horseback riding instructors, physical therapists, riding program operators, medical professionals, and other interested individuals about therapeutic riding. The specific phases of instruction are intended to supply information needed to operate a safe therapeutic riding program.
"Therapeutic riding programs should operate in conjunction with the intimate guidance of medical professional," says Greenlee.
The Pennsylvania Council issues a certificate to individuals who have successfully completed three phases of training as well as an "on-site" evaluation conducted by a team of PQI evaluators at the program site.
Cost to families
According to Mike Kaufmann of NARHA, some riding centers might charge a small fee, but most are non-profit and do not. "They rely mostly on fund raising," he says. "And unless a licensed therapist is involved, reimbursement for therapy from an individual's medical coverage is unlikely."
Other organizations participating in NARHA riding programs include the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Multiple Sclerosis Society, Special Olympics, Spina Bifida Association and United Cerebral Palsy. For information call 1-800-369-7433 or visit www.narha.org.