The benefits of horsing around

Lifestyle Sports | Lifestyle
Kim Scott rides on a cloudy summer day. Her road to horseback has been a long but important one. Photo provided

It’s a cold, brisk Friday morning at Echo Riding Stables in the outskirts of Victoria, British Columbia. Several horses are in the grass surrounding the stables, wrapped in blankets, waiting for their riders to show up for the day. The air smells of damp moss and farmlands and a rooster crows loudly in the background. Several horses neigh and search the ground for abandoned treats, their breath crystallizing in the cold air. Kim Scott arrives and begins to prepare her horse, Adam, for her riding session.

Adam is a tall, soft brown sweetheart. He is full of energy, prancing around and looking for snacks and attention as he is groomed. Kim is preparing herself for the day ahead, deciding what she and Adam should work on. She hauls a heavy saddle over and begins the dressing process.

Born with cerebral palsy, Kim was unable to even sit up on her own for many years. Now, you’d never be able to tell. She tends to her horse like any other rider, and she rides like she was born on a horse, with an immense amount of skill and grace.

Kim discovered her passion for horses early on, spending her summer days at her aunt’s ranch. Now, she is a Grade 3 rider, able to communicate with her horse through vocal commands. Kim and Adam glide seamlessly around the barn as if they had spent their entire lives together, acting as one unit with an unbreakable bond.

Since Kim began riding, she has not only learned to sit up on her own, but can now walk in a straight line as well as many other things for herself that she was previously unable to do.

Horse-based therapy dates back to ancient Greece and the works of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine. It was popularized in Europe during the 1950s, and now, as many people look toward natural medicine and away from pharmaceuticals, equine therapy could prove to be a viable alternative to traditional medicine.

Horses are excellent therapeutic companions for many reasons. To start, the large animals are attuned to human emotions. If their rider is stressed or upset, those emotions can in turn upset the horse. A rider has to be consciously aware of their emotions to keep the horse in good spirits. Physically, it takes a lot of effort to work with a horse. From grooming to riding, many skills need to be developed over a long period of time.

At 18, Chantelle was suffering from severe depression and on mental health leave from her job. After her therapist suggested a hobby, Chantelle decided to get a horse.

Since Kim began riding, she has not only learned to sit up on her own, but can now walk in a straight line as well as many other things for herself that she was previously unable to do.

“I have two whips to replace my legs, because I don’t have feeling from the knees down. I also have elastics on my stirrups to help me stay where I need to be,” Kim explains. “[Adam] knows all his commands through voice.”

Kim rides Adam for at least an hour every day, mostly to train for competitions. Today, they trot around the barn beneath the noisy birds making nests in the rafters. You can see the connection between Kim and Adam, and their years of companionship show in their riding.

“The horse’s movement is three-dimensional, so when the core is engaged on the horse, and when the muscles are engaged on the horse, it’s the exact same as if you were just walking along,” Kim says as she does another lap with Adam. “So if you have someone who has no core, and you put them on a horse, the core has to engage, and then engage in movement. [Horseback riding is] tricky, but it’s a safe environment and it’s a supportive environment.”

The supportive environment horses provide can also have a significant impact on mental health. At 18, Chantelle was suffering from severe depression and on mental health leave from her job. After her therapist suggested a hobby, Chantelle decided to get a horse. She chose a wild horse named Summer from northern B.C., rescued by the SPCA.

“When I first met her, she didn’t let people touch her or anything,” Chantelle says. “But when I went to see her, she came up to me and let me pet her, and everyone was blown away so I was like, ‘I have to get this horse, we clearly have a connection.’”

Training a wild horse is challenging, according to Chantelle, but it was exactly the thing she needed to help with her depression.

“Some parts [were] good, some parts [were] bad, it took a long time,” Chantelle says. “She wouldn’t even let me put a halter on her, so that took a while. I’d just sort of have it go in her stall and have it and eventually she let me put it on her.”

Chantelle struggled with Summer’s wild nature — Summer was not used to being around people. The first few months were rough for the two of them, but Chantelle did not give up. She knew the partnership would be worth it.

“Breaking her to ride took a long time as well. We had some downs. I fell off of her and broke my wrist and my ribs, but there were lots of good moments.” Chantelle says. Her first trainer ended up quitting because Summer was too difficult, but Chantelle and a new trainer managed it eventually.

Having grown up around farm animals, Chantelle was familiar with the power and strength of horses. Working with an animal that reflects a rider’s emotions can improve self-esteem and confidence, and can help with overcoming fears. Chantelle does caution, however, that a rider must respect the horse, and can only then earn its respect in return.

“When a lot of people hear you break a horse, they think they’re the boss, like a dog and a person,” Chantelle says. “[With] a horse you have to have a really good partnership, otherwise you know they don’t have to listen if they don’t want to, because they are such big animals.”

“I always say that she brought me back to life. She made me feel alive again,” Chantelle says.

Partnership is a common emphasis among equine therapy organizations. The Victoria Therapeutic Riding Association (VTRA) finds it particularly important. They focus on three sections: therapy, education, and sport/recreation/leisure. All sections fall within the larger “Therapeutic Riding” category, but each part serves a different purpose.

“Our mission is to enrich the lives of children and adults with disabilities through the provision of therapeutic horseback riding programs and related activities,” states the VTRA website.

Since opening in 1982, the VTRA has provided therapeutic riding lessons to children and adults with a variety of physical and mental challenges. They help over 160 riders, and have a team of over a 100 volunteers who keep the business running. Not only is the VTRA a non-profit charity, its location is accessible by the #75 bus for those who can’t drive.

Places like the VTRA provide hands-on experience to participants, both individually and in group sessions. Once a participant has learned how to care for the horse and is comfortable to begin riding, an instructor may stand in the middle of the ring, observing and coaching the participants as they transition into being fully fledged riders.

“Don’t give up,” Chantelle says to new riders. “It takes a lot of practice, and you’re not going to fit with every horse like how you don’t fit with every human. There’s a difference between respect and fear. A lot of people don’t realize. They think establishing fear is going to bring respect, but that doesn’t work with partnerships.”

“I always say that she brought me back to life. She made me feel alive again,” Chantelle says.

Another organization serving the greater Victoria area is Kiowa Farm. Kiowa contracts licensed professionals like therapists and counsellors in their riding program. They service many needs, including ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, brain injuries, addiction, and more.

Cassie Hooker, a mature student attending UVic, and her entire family have been through equine therapy. Cassie and her husband participated during a veterans retreat in Ontario, discovering all the advantages it has to offer. Cassie’s kids — Colin, six, and Lillith, eight — have both been through equine therapy sessions at Kiowa Farm. Both of Cassie’s children have high-functioning autism and have found great success there.

“Essentially we have taken health care and learning assistance services out of the clinics, offices, and classrooms, and brought them to the farm with horses and other animals,” the Kiowa Farms’ website reads. “We find that adapting these animals to traditional, evidence-based approaches to therapy and learning enhances the effectiveness of the treatments and interventions, as well as aiding in the prevention of illness. Furthermore, clients can draw upon the numerous service options, combining them in ways that are uniquely suited to their needs.”

“I went to physio this morning so I could improve on my horse. I used to do riding for therapy and now I do therapy for my riding.”

Cassie’s kids are able to do things they couldn’t do before participating in therapy. One of Cassie’s favourite memories of Kiowa Farm came from Lillith overcoming her own great challenge in a unique way.

When Lillith first started riding, she was on a pony named Crystal. During her session one day, Lillith and Crystal got tangled up in some vines, causing Lillith to fall off and break her arm. This was upsetting for Cassie, as she worried Lillith would be too afraid to ride horses again. They allowed Lillith to return to the farm at her own pace, but this time she didn’t pick Crystal, she picked the biggest horse on the farm: a Percheron named Viktor.

“True to Lillith’s nature, my little lioness, she picks Viktor. The biggest horse they have. She looks like a little Lego figurine on his back,” Cassie says. “She literally fell off [one] horse and got back on the biggest one. It’s just amazing what horses can do to make these kids overcome their natural anxieties. It’s been wonderful in helping them overcome their social problems, their irrational fears, their natural anxieties, you name it.”

Some scholars theorize that horses function according to a concept called “feedback and mirroring.” They say that horses contain more mirror neurons than cats or dogs, which cause them to reflect more emotions as they receive them.

Kim says that a horse receiving negative emotions from its rider will react negatively, whereas a horse receiving positive emotions will react positively. According to The Anxiety Treatment Centre, a California-based  facility that treats anxiety, OCD, and related conditions, a horse’s intuition means they can often provide feedback earlier and more consistently than a human therapist.

Kim Scott knows the power of her horse, and she and Adam are currently training for a future in the paralympics. For someone who was once unable to sit up on their own, this is a huge accomplishment for Kim.

“When I started on him, because he is so much bigger, my body had to develop muscles that weren’t working before,” Kim says. “I went to physio this morning so I could improve on my horse. I used to do riding for therapy and now I do therapy for my riding.”

Kim now also coaches other riders in their para-equestrian therapy journey.

“It’s important to have the rider as still as possible on the horse, so the horses can be the most balanced as possible underneath the rider,” Kim says. “It’s a big motivation to those little kids, who don’t have the motivation at all to do it themselves. If you say ‘this is something your horse needs,’ it makes them actually do it.”

This article was updated on April 5, 2019, at 9:56 a.m.