Therapeutic Riding and horsemanship, is still a relatively new concept here in Ireland. It is essentially an alternative form of therapy which uses horses to help people with various disabilities. People with physical and mental health conditions have successfully used therapeutic riding to achieve their cognitive, social, communication and behavioral goals.
Sandra Schmid, based near Bantry is one of Ireland’s trained Therapeutic Riding Coaches and offers lessons from her smallholding on one of her two gentle horses, Hairy Henry or Winnie. Sandra says ‘normally the lessons are one-on-one, but sometimes siblings and friends come together for a session too’. Sandra is very confident and relaxed around horses and this permeates the atmosphere at her arena. There is a sense of calm and tranquility and visitors are met by friendly, contented , patient horses. ‘The sessions are not limited to children, but are open to adults of all abilities as well’.
Sandra has always been passionate about horses and has been riding since she was a young girl. ‘I started lessons when I was about 9. I love working with horses and love their ability of being able to shift your perspective on things’.
‘In therapeutic riding, the horse is used as a partner and works alongside the coach in cultivating a trusting relationship with the rider. The unique neuromuscular stimulation whilst riding and handling the horse promotes balance, improved posture, confidence, independence and co-ordination. It also improves spatial awareness and has lasting positive effects on emotional well being’.
Sandra says ‘ the physical benefits are things such as improved muscle tone and motor skills and the emotional benefits are things such as improved self-esteem and reduced stress levels. There are cognitive benefits too such as improved concentration skills by learning and experience’.
‘Horses make this form of therapy so special because they are non-judgmental and give immediate and honest feedback on our actions’ Sandra says ‘there are plenty of people who teach the kind of riding that is all about ribbons, rosettes, show jumping etc but I like to focus on time. Time spent with the rider and the horse is so valuable and sometimes all we need is some time’.
While it may be a new concept here, ‘hippotherapy’, derived from the Greek hippos (horse) has been around since ancient Greek times and is first referred to in the writings of Hippocrates. It was used to treat ailments such as gout and also to help amputees regain balance and momentum. Hippotherapy was only formalised as a discipline in the 1960s when it gained popularity in Germany and Switzerland as a complement to traditional physical therapy. Today, Hippotherapy is used to treat patients with both neurological and other disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, arthritis, head injury, stroke, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis and psychiatric disorders.
Rupert Isaacson, who is the founder of the Horse Boy Foundation and author of two books on the topic, is appearing at the Bantry Literary Festival on Friday the 11th July to speak of how horses positively impacted the life of his autistic son. In 2007, Rupert, and his wife Kristin and autistic son set off on a journey through Mongolia, the spiritual country of the horse and rode from healer to healer. The result was astounding as the family had left with ‘a child still throwing tantrums, un-toilet trained and unable to make friends’ , and returned to America with a child who ‘ was not having tantrums, was toilet trained and able to make friends’. On Saturday afternoon, the 12th July, Rupert is going to use Sandra’s Horse, Hairy Henry in a demonstration in therapeutic horsemanship. The event will be held a the beautiful Bantry Pony Trekking centre in the Mealagh Valley. Jenny, from the trekking centre, also has a most holistic approach to horses with her entire stable consisting of rescue horses which have now been rehabilitated and offer riders scenic treks to the top of Mount Mullugmesha.
Sandra trained as a Therapeutic Riding Coach at Festina Lente Stables in Co. Wicklow. Festina Lente are accredited by the Association of Irish Riding Establishments (AIRE) and have designed the pilot programme for training Therapeutic Riding Coaches in Ireland. Sandra’s sessions last about 45 minutes and the full tactile benefits of working with the horse from grooming to riding along a nature trail are beneficial from the first session. Sandra has a range of ‘on-back’ games, ranging from yoga, to ball catch to flag slalom to play which will appease even the most reluctant or nervous rider so that everyone can relax and get full benefit from the session. There is no age limit for therapeutic horsemanship and Sandra’s youngest rider is just 18 months old. For further information visit Hairy Henry or follow them on facebook