Therapeutic Riding: Seeing Disability through a Thousand Pound Mirror

By: Tayler Sykora

Horses are often described as “thousand pound mirrors”, capable of generating a reflection in which the riders are able to truly see themselves and develop a deeper understanding of who they are, how their mind works, how their body moves, and what they are capable of. This unique quality combined with their patience and strength not only makes horses great companions, but for Kimberly and many others with disabilities, they also serve as the perfect therapists.


Kimberly, not yet three years of age, struggled with severe developmental delays and motor impairments until her family was joined by a young Morgan mare named Peaches N’ Mae.

Therapeutic Riding

Peaches and Kim developed an intimate bond, each learning from the other as they grew. Within weeks, Kim’s mother, Jayne, began to notice remarkable changes in her daughter.

From the saddle, it was though Kim’s disabilities and struggles disappeared and were replaced with stability and confidence. What was once a lack of balance had unexpectedly evolved into the coordination and ability to perform various tasks including trotting, grooming, and providing cues. Kim also displayed impressive cognitive improvements as she was able to memorize and complete riding patterns with ease. “It was so obvious how much it helped”, says Jayne. Riding was changing Kim’s life.

Having witnessed these miraculous developments in Kim’s physical and mental health as a result of therapeutic riding, Jayne transformed their family ranch into a satellite location of the renowned Walk On Therapies located in River Falls, Wisconsin. There, both Kim and Jayne accompanied by licensed counselor, Angela Siler, serve as certified therapeutic riding instructors, dedicated to aiding those with special needs similar to Kim’s.


Therapeutic riding is a method of rehabilitative treatment in which equine-assisted activities such a horseback riding are employed to improve the cognitive, physical, and emotional well-being of individuals with a variety of special needs.


Therapeutic Riding is a Bilateral Treatment

One of the most unique and, perhaps, the most beneficial characteristic of therapeutic riding is that it utilizes bilateral treatment methods. What this means is that riding and other activities associated with this type of therapy engage both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously, essentially stimulating the entire mind. This, unlike many other forms of therapy, allows the individual to exercise their physical, mental, and social skills all at once.

By performing tasks such as grasping the reins, putting on the saddle, getting on and off the horse, and posting, riders can increase both their fine and gross motor skills while also improving their social skills by developing relationships with horses, instructors, and other riders.

By maintaining their position in the saddle, steering their horse, and other basic riding skills, riders can improve their balance and coordination while also improving their verbal skills by communicating with instructors and delivering cues to the horse.

By being exposed to a variety of sounds, sights, and textures, riders can begin to overcome sensory processing disorders while also improving their confidence and emotional well-being by participating in an uplifting and enjoyable experience.

“It is a safe, controlled, gentle way to ride while still engaging the whole body”, says Jayne, “You begin to see results in areas that you would never expect”. Because therapeutic riding does not focus solely on a specific element of an individual’s health, but rather addresses a variety of areas, the results are more extensive and the process becomes more beneficial to the overall well-being of the rider. For Kim, the results seemed endless, including remarkable improvement in her cognitive skills, balance, body strength, patience, confidence, coordination, communication skills, and even self-control. “It makes a difference,” says Kim.

Therapeutic Riding is Adaptive

Another characteristic of therapeutic riding that makes it an effective remedy is its ability to adapt to a variety of situations and disabilities. Whether it be the way we learn, the way we communicate, or the way we think, everyone is different. Every disability is unique. For this reason, therapeutic riding instructors are specialists in accommodation, continuously adapting their lesson plans to best meet the specific needs of the individual and to make the process as valuable as possible. “That’s what this is all about”, says Jayne, “making riding enjoyable and beneficial to as many people as we can”.

Therapeutic Riding is Fun

Therapeutic riding is not only healing, it’s enjoyable. When Kim was only a few years old, physicians reported she possessed virtually no sense of balance, but when asked why she was able to ride despite her lack of balance, the doctor simply replied “she wants to”. For Kim, riding wasn’t therapy; it was fun. She rode because she loved to, unaware of the tremendous physical, mental, and social benefits it would have on her health.

Because therapeutic riding lessons are not conducted in the typical therapeutic setting, riders are more inclined to perceive the lessons as an enjoyable experience rather than a standard therapy session. Riders not only look forward to going, but are also more willing to participate and become engaged in a variety of therapeutic activities that they may otherwise hesitate to take part in. This eagerness to be involved makes the overall therapeutic process more effective and beneficial to the individual.

Therapeutic Riding Increases Self-Confidence

Therapeutic riding provides a nondiscriminatory environment in which riders can demonstrate their skills and improvements comfortably and confidently without being labeled by their disabilities. Too often, a disability can become a shroud, concealing the individual underneath and hiding their potential, but by participating in therapeutic riding programs, riders are not only building skills, but also building the confidence needed to remove their shroud and be seen for more than their disability.

Riders are even encouraged to participate in local horse shows and competitions where they ride alongside others their age, having fun, forming relationships, and showing everyone what they are capable of. Instead of being judged by their disability, they are judged only for the quality of the ride. This gives riders the opportunity to be active and involved without being placed in a special needs category. For Kim, it was only a short time before she began showing at fairs and competing in advanced categories.

Whether it be its bilateral approach to treatment, its adaptive techniques, or its enjoyable atmosphere, therapeutic riding continues to change lives just as it has changed Kim’s.

Tayler Sykora is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls majoring in marketing communications with a minor in professional writing. Tayler has an internship with ConnectWC for the summer of 2015 and is writing several articles focusing on disability-related topics of interest to individuals with special needs, their families and the community.
Phone: 715-338-6150