Horse Power
Suburban centers that facilitate the interaction between human and equine teach kids to overcome hardship
by Sharon A. Shaw


Meghan and Charles Houder’s 5-year-old son, Matthew, has seen remarkable improvement over the past three years, thanks in part to regular visits to a “magical” place west of their home in Newtown Square. In fact, Matthew, who has severe scoliosis and low muscle tone, is “well on his way to walking independently,” Charles says, “and we are so amazed and proud by his continual gain.”


Matthew’s “real and substantial progress” can be attributed to his sessions at Quest Therapeutic Services in West Chester, where he receives a unique breed of therapy of sorts—so-called hippotherapy—to locals in need, brought about by interactions between human and horse.


“There is something more than a little magical that happens between the horses, their therapists, volunteers and the children,” says Charles. 


Horses have long served as tools for human accomplishment, their combination of speed, strength and agility making them uniquely suited to aid in a variety of tasks. But it may be their empathetic side that makes horses particularly adept at assisting children and young adults—and even some adults—affected by a variety of emotional, physical, mental, social and developmental difficulties.


Sandra McCloskey, founder and self-described “chief stall mucker” of Quest Therapeutic Services, explains that therapeutic riding involves instructors teaching adaptive riding skills, while in so-called hippotherapy, licensed professionals are specially trained to use horses to accomplish individual therapy goals. These goals might include improvements in muscle tone, behavior and social skills.


These therapies can be especially helpful for children who suffer from disorders along the autism spectrum and may have trouble connecting with others. They can learn empathy as they care for the horse and better understand how to form bonds with others.


“Horses, in particular, connect with children,” she says. “The work of children is to play. The gains children get are so much more than other forms [of therapy]. Children are in a natural setting. It is a healthy robust environment rich with senses: smell, touch and sounds different than what they have in their home.”


In addition, the physical activity required to ride a horse engages the same muscles used when walking. This can improve strength and mobility, important goals for many riders. The rocking motion of their gait also helps to regulate a rider’s arousal level. If the child is over-stimulated, the rhythmic movement helps to neutralize their nervous system. If under-stimulated, the motion will bring it up to neutral. Under these conditions McCloskey says some children “begin to focus, make eye contact and follow direction. They can’t do it on the ground, but they can on a horse.”


Quest relies on evidence-based therapeutic intervention and maintains clinical partnerships with local schools and hospitals that help to advance pediatric therapies through its participation in studies, research and education. “We see the value of giving back to the profession,” says McCloskey, who was a pediatric therapist before combining her off-hours hobby with her profession in the field of hippotherapy.


“We started with six kids,” she says. “Then, when I could handle that, [we had] nine, then more until eventually we needed a permanent location.” Her current facility opened in 2005, and is now accredited by PATH, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. It serves 200 children weekly through its hippotherapy program, with additional visits to homes, schools and communities.


Therapeutic riding programs have taken hold throughout the suburbs. In Malvern, Thorncroft Equestrian Center has been offering therapeutic programs since 1969. Director of operations Sallie Dixon began as a volunteer 20 years ago when she was “taken aback” by the sense of community at Thorncroft. She describes it as “a very peaceful place where we celebrate our differences and our similarities.”


In addition to offering physical, occupational, mental, physical and emotional therapies Thorncroft has opened a new riding arena to service those with mental and intellectual disabilities. Thorncroft also offers a vocational training program that helps teen and young adult participants transition into adulthood and deal with the complex issues of work, friends and family. 


Such skills come from time spent on and with their steeds. Beyond the basic farm-and-barn skills, however, participants also learn skills they will use elsewhere for the rest of their lives, such as fostering personal relationships. These abilities are especially important for at-risk youth.


“Riding is secondary,” she says. “We give people things they can take off the farm, a way of being. … To get a job you need to know how to shake hands and look someone in the eye. Horses react to emotions. [Students] learn how to be nice to the horses and their classmates and then others.”


Social Animal

Special Equestrians in Warrington also uses the energy and influence of their horses to help troubled youth come to terms with their emotions. Anne Reynolds, program director, says she and other instructors help students observe the interaction between horses: who is boss, who is submissive and how those roles are communicated. They then correlate this behavior to that which students experience in school.


“The horse is a social creature,” says Reynolds, making it the ideal animal to illustrate the effects of our own human behavior on one another.


Special Equestrians offers a variety of other programs including therapeutic riding, hippotherapy, physical and occupational therapy. Established 32 years ago, its instructors now work with 100 kids per week. Special Equestrians’ newly appointed executive director, Denise Quirk, describes her first 24 hours with the organization as “extraordinary.”


In addition to improving their motor skills and tone, participants can also improve their speech language and social skills by interacting with their environment, the horse and their aides. Special Equestrians offers a sensory trail that provides a variety of experiences for riders. The multipurpose outdoor space was begun three years ago with the help of local volunteer groups and now offers space for three or four lessons to take place simultaneously, meetings and activities both on and off the horses. Riders can move from station to station while playing games, making sounds and experiencing new sensations.


Special programs assist more than those with disabilities—namely, individuals over the age of 55 who participate in the Silver Saddles program. Although some come with diagnoses of arthritis, fibromyalgia and hip replacements, there is no requirement that riders be suffering a disability to participate. In fact, it was started to benefit some of Special Equestrians own volunteers, several older women who became passionate about horses and were interested in learning to ride. Riders have reported increased endurance, range of motion and confidence, according to Reynolds.


Quirk, who is a competitive show jumper, has worked with horses her whole life and knows how empathetic they can be, but is still amazed at the success of the programs there and the joy she witnesses on the faces of those—especially children—who benefit from these unique interactions.


One woman she met has twin boys who had been coming to ride as part of their therapy for several weeks. One son wouldn’t use the swing set in their backyard—merely stand beside it and touch the seat. After participating in Special Equestrians’ programs, he now has better coordination and the confidence to play on the swings with his brother.