Horses are trainable, strong, and willing to work hard. They can pull a wagon, race around a track, stay calm in a parade, and round up cattle. Yet horses are more than the sum of their physical strengths. Of all the animals tapped to work with humans, they are also some of the most intuitive. Thanks to horses’ gentle nature, warm eyes, and rhythmic gait, their presence has an understandably calming effect on their human counterparts. In fact, records dating back as far as 600 B.C. discuss the benefits of riding for those with disabilities.
“Equine therapy has been going on for a very long time,” says Gabrielle Greeves, executive director of WindWalkers Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning Center, which operates in Carbondale’s Missouri Heights. “Even in the U.S., it’s been happening for 50 years.”
Official recognition in this country came in 1969 when the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International was founded to provide framework to the field. The nonprofit offers certification, accreditation, and educational programs.
Modern-day equine therapy employs horses to treat people with emotional, cognitive, and physical challenges. It’s often used in conjunction with more traditional therapy programs to help with conditions such as PTSD, autism, ADHD, addiction, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome. Treatments range from groundwork (a patient interacts with the horse, but doesn’t ride it) to riding horses accompanied by one or more side-walkers to more traditional group or private lessons. “Different equine therapy programs have their own unique strengths to meet different needs,” says Sheryl Barto of Carbondale’s Smiling Goat Ranch. “But there is a place for all of it.”
The Roaring Fork Valley (and slightly beyond) is fortunate to have several well-established facilities that offer a multitude of therapy approaches. And as with most treatments, the more willing the participant, the better the results. “When you think about what we are trying to achieve at the end of the day, it’s all about fun,” says Greeves. “Being with the horses doesn’t feel like therapy.”
At WindWalkers, she adds, an inclusive approach promotes success. “We’ll have a class of four to six kids that will swell to more than 20 people with siblings and parents coming to watch and interact. It’s truly a family affair.”
Riding Institute for Disabled Equestrians, Rifle
The Stiers family has been running this “labor of love” community program since 1993. One-on-one and group sessions run summer through fall for children and adults with physical and developmental disabilities. The facility also has a hugely popular sensory riding trail.
Smiling Goat Ranch, Carbondale
Founder Sheryl Barto calls her ranch’s therapy rides “play-date sessions to focus on brain function.” She uses the Horse Boy Method, founded by the parent of an autistic child in Texas, to help foster communication and repattern the brain for clients on the autism spectrum; those with ADD, ADHD or anxiety; and veterans with PTSD. All riding takes place outside, as the natural environment is an important part of treatment, including on a new sensory trail.
Sopris Therapy Services, Carbondale
Certified instructors provide programs for those with a wide variety of disabilities and across a full spectrum of ages, including hippotherapy, therapeutic riding, traditional physical therapy, equine-assisted mental health programs, disabled veterans’ programs, and summer camps for children of all abilities.
WindWalkers Equine Assisted Learning and Therapy Center, Carbondale
Founded in 2005, the center provides private and group lessons for students of all ages, including at-risk, addiction, and veterans’ programs. WindWalkers also offers summer camps for children of all abilities and horsemanship riding lessons. A sensory riding trail is under construction.