Easy to print version

Tall in the Saddle
Learning to ride, children with disabilities feel they can fly
by Clare Kittredge

His eyebrows even with the saddle, a 7-year-old boy in jeans and a black helmet cuts a diminutive figure before the horse. Caleb Mace stands expectantly on a wooden mounting block, waiting to be helped onto Flash, a gentle Welsh gelding described as having a "puppy dog personality."

Outside, the temperature is pushing 90. But in the half-light of the ring at the UNH Therapeutic Riding Program, neither Caleb nor the other young riders seem to mind. At a command from the boy, Flash starts a slow amble around the ring, flanked by a team of four volunteers. Responding to a prompt, Caleb correctly points to a picture of a basketball on the wall, then grins in triumph.

"This is so good for him," says his mother, Peggy Mace of Dover, N.H. She explains that her son has speech and muscle impediments related to Down Syndrome and that this program, with its focus on becoming "able riders," makes a big difference in his life. "It's good for his speech, his muscle tone, not to mention the independence he feels. And he loves horses. It's helped him in ways you can't really measure. In self-esteem, it's huge."

The program defines therapeutic riding as dynamic therapy that uses riding and a horse's "rhythmic, low-amplitude movement" to reach specific physical, cognitive, social and emotional goals. Launched in 1989, the UNH program is offered under the auspices of the animal and nutritional sciences department and gives weekly riding lessons to children and adults with a range of disabilities. Aided by a team of interns, instructors and volunteers, the riders perform tasks geared to their abilities, from hooking plastic rings on posts to identifying objects in the ring. Those who can, groom the horses afterwards.

Although the program's stated focus is abilities, not disabilities, many of the children clearly face big challenges. For example, one participant with hypertonic muscles is helped from wheelchair to horse but tenses up so much he can't sit in the saddle. "He just couldn't relax enough to hold on," program director Cindy Wentzell Burke '90, '02G explains to a relative. "We'll try again next week."

Looking on from the bleachers is Nicole Lavoie, a chatty 10-year-old with a winsome smile and a nose sprinkled with freckles. She is waiting for a chestnut gelding named Quill. Several years into the program, Nicole says she has learned to walk, trot and jump. What's her toughest challenge? "The hardest thing for me is getting my fingers on the reins. I was born with CP," she explains matter-of-factly.

At a signal from Burke, Nicole slides into her walker, scoots forward to be lifted onto the horse and takes off around the ring. Nicole has progressed from being escorted by volunteers to riding on her own—quite an accomplishment, Burke says. Because she uses a walker, being up on a horse is a "huge, huge thing for her. She's up high. She's in control, and she can go wherever she wants." After her ride, Nicole is asked whether she wants to meet Quill outside or lead him to the barn for grooming. "I want to lead him!" Nicole says. A few minutes later, she is sponging the horse off, getting herself wet in the process. "This is the best thing for her," says her grandfather, Bradley Pike. "It gives her all the confidence in the world, riding that horse."

Return to UNH Magazine Campus Currents