Horse Riding Therapy


Written for Firefly Friends

I soon realised in this unexpected world of special needs, activities I had enjoyed with Isla’s older sisters were now off limits. Dancing, gymnastics, athletics and cheerleading were the ones I had previously known like the back of my hand. They were the same ones that I now knew Isla couldn’t participate in. These types of co-curricular interests were difficult because of Isla’s poor motor skills, limited social skills and sensory dysfunction and everything else that comes along with 2q23.1 Microdeletion Syndrome. What we did try was not enjoyable at all and actually was really stressful for both of us.

We then began to seek out activities where Isla would feel competent and that would help all those skills Isla needed to work on. But I soon realised there wasn’t much available. When (after a couple of years on the waiting list) we got called up by the charity, Riding for the Disabled (RDA) we were thrilled.

I didn’t know how Isla would be around horses. On the first day we were a bit hesitant. The volunteers soon put us at ease and made it a successful day. Having a visual with the horses and her name on a board appealed to Isla.  Even now she still goes directly to the board to find her name and see what horse she is on and who her sidewalkers are. The process of getting to meet with the horse before jumping on worked well for her.

It was soon pretty clear that this was going to tick all the boxes for us. It also had some unexpected benefits.

Number 1 

Social skills and Sensory Dysfunction 

You wouldn’t think these two would be linked right?  They are because being on a horse allows Isla’s sensory needs to be met. This allows her to practice her social skills by conversing with instructors.

It’s pretty hard for Isla to have an ongoing back and forth conversation with anyone. It makes her feel really uncomfortable. She can’t meet people’s eyes and she needs to move around.

When she was younger I realised the best conversations we would have were in our spa pool at home. So when on the horse, just like being in water, Isla’s sensory system is calmed. This allows her to focus on talking without having to deal with regulating her body.

The main way you can see this is by the lack of stimming. When riding this is pretty non existent. Isla normally bites her hand and makes the “eeeee” noise when excited. I know she is happy when she’s on a horse but the feedback she receiving  is enough and she doesn’t need to “feel” her excitement. Also the fact that her hands are occupied with the reins or holding on doesn’t give her the opportunity.

Number 2

Motor skills

Isla has dyspraxia. She finds writing difficult, dressing difficult, turning clothes from being inside out to the right way virtually impossible. She lacks the motor planning needed to undertake these tasks. The therapy to help with this is creating mind body connections while strengthening her muscles. The exercises that she practices each week, for example standing in the saddle, all help her create new pathways. It also helps in strengthening her core and other muscles.

Steering, listening and remembering instructions, balancing, even being able to tolerate a helmet on her head, all go towards helping Isla having a stronger mind and body.

Number 3

Network of support

Sometimes having a child with a disability is isolating. It’s hard to know where you fit in to be honest. That applies to both Isla and I. Through Riding we have made connections.

We have made connections with the instructors who are passionate about what they do. Isla also thinks they are “really nice”.

Isla has made connections and bonded with other children. They also enjoy doing what she enjoys without the pressure of having to socialise in a typical way.

For me, I have made connections with other mothers (and sometimes fathers) and it allows us to talk about things we are going through and receive support. On the flip side, we celebrate achievements and progression in development which are easily recognised by other special needs parents .

Number 4

Achievement, Self Esteem 

For a little person who struggles with most things for them to feel like they are accomplishing tasks is so important for their self esteem.

When Isla writes a letter to her horse and receives one in return, especially for her, it makes her feel really special.

Receiving a ribbon at Ribbon Day for everything she has achieved is a huge boost to her self esteem and she feels so proud.

Riding for the Disabled is a charity in New Zealand.  It provides goal-based riding activities that increase the ability, strength and confidence of people with physical, intellectual, emotional and social challenges.

Published by Sara Stythe

Hi my name is Sara Stythe and I am a mum of 3 beautiful girls. This is a place to share knowledge, resources and information I have learnt along the way on this unexpected journey with our unique youngest daughter. Isla is missing a tiny bit of her 2nd chromosome (2q23.1 Microdeletion Syndrome, recently known as MAND) causing autism, epilepsy and development delay. If you would like to receive my new blog posts by email you can subscribe. Thank you

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