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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Horse Therapy

Air Date: Week of

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A growing number of horse stables across the nation are offering riding lessons to kids with physical and emotional disabilities. Riding offers the chance to be quick and nimble, and to overcome fear. Dmae Roberts takes us along for a lesson at a stable in Oregon.


CURWOOD: Children with disabilities are working with horses in a new kind of physical and emotional therapy. There are now about 650 riding centers in the U.S. and Canada that offer therapeutic horse riding to more than 30,000 people with a wide range of disabilities.

Producer Dmae Roberts visited one such stable in Eugene, Oregon, and has this report.


ROBERTS: A cold, cloudy day at a stable on a country highway just outside of Eugene. A petite, pretty girl with long brown hair and a riding helmet approaches her horse. Grace Kurlichek is eight and has a slight limp from a form of cerebral palsy that stiffens her legs. She watches shyly as her instructor hoists the riding gear.

KURLICHEK: Well, that's the saddle and those are the stirrups, and under there is the girth. She is lifting the reins over the horse's head.

ROBERTS: Instructor Barb Marina Krandall gets Grace mounted on Dove, a 16-year-old blue roan. Grace is eager to go but Barb first makes her practice sitting tall and stretching. Grace seems more confident as she situates herself on Dove. Still, she seems very small.

KURLICHEK: I know a couple people who are afraid of horses.


KURLICHEK: Because when one of them was younger, when she was riding a horse, she go bucked off and got stepped on.


KRANDALL: No holding on. You can while we start and then let go, okay? Okay, roll back. Ready? Go forward.

ROBERTS: Grace and Dove trot into a huge arena filled with sawdust. Barb runs beside them. Grace smiles at the speed as she leads the horse in quick turns.


ROBERTS: Next, Barb sets out orange construction cones across the arena and tells Grace to run Dove in a serpentine pattern. Grace is intrigued.

KURLICHEK: Does Dove know how to serpentine while she's trotting?

KRANDALL: Yes, she does.

ROBERTS: They circle around the arena.

KRANDALL: Yeah, good, good. Okay, there you go, crossing over. Hey, pretty good, you guys.

ROBERTS: After a few more turns around the arena, the riding lesson is nearly over. Barb has one more thing she wants to teach Grace. Usually Barb lifts her off the horse, but Grace has been practicing swinging her right leg over so she can dismount by herself. This will be a big step for her.

KURLICHEK: No, I don't like doing it like that. Putting my leg over.

KRANDALL: Okay, well, I'll tell you what. We won't do it right now. But I want you to lean all the way forward…

KURLICHEK: I have an idea. If I go like this and then go like that, I can do it.

ROBERTS: Grace moves her leg to the top of the horse, but not quite over.

KRANDALL: Okay, you know, we'll work on this, but right now lean all the way down and give her a big, giant hug. Wrap your arms all the way around her neck like that. Really, really far. Take your head down there. Yeah, there you go. Just feel your back stretch. Yeah. Now rest your head on her neck. Rest your head on her neck. It'll feel really good down your back. So nice and stretchy. And then we'll get off.

ROBERTS: Grace pushes herself into the stretching exercises with her arms wrapped around the horse.

KRANDALL: There you go. Okay, now we'll dismount our normal way.

ROBERTS: Barb helps her off Dove. Horses are challenging and not always predictable. Mastering a skill like horse riding can give youth with disabilities an extra dose of self-esteem and confidence. Grace's mom, Ann Glang, who has been watching from the wings, tells me that Grace has recently gone riding out in the woods. That's a breakthrough, and it could change how the family can spend time together.

GLANG: We, as a family, have a hard time accessing the mountains and accessing places that aren't paved. Grace can walk about a quarter of a mile to a half mile, but if we want to go on a longer hike, it's hard. And the wheelchair, we do have a wheelchair but it doesn't go over a lot of the rough terrain. But I see that in our future, that we could-- she could ride a horse, or we could all ride horses and get places that we can't get.

ROBERTS: Her riding lesson over, Grace walks outside and shares a story.

KURLICHEK: I have a friend that is looking into riding and he has a disability, too. He said he was scared and I told him, like, there's nothing to be scared about, and stuff. He said he was scared because he had rode one time and he had fallen off the horse. I said, just because you fell off once doesn't mean you're going to fall off again.

ROBERTS: This is something that Grace knows from experience. A couple weeks ago, at the first-ever Ride-Able Horse Show, she too had fallen off her horse. But she got right back on. And she won an award that's now displayed on the fireplace mantel at home.

For Living on Earth, I'm Dmae Roberts in Eugene, Oregon.




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