Certified therapeutic riding instructor Claire List, a volunteer at Achievement Centers for Children’s Camp Cheerful, was kind enough to grant an interview about the science of therapeutic horseback riding to close out this “Tails & Tales” STEAM Week!
Here is their Mission/History.
Q: Briefly, tell me about your organization and why you decided to join.
A: Achievement Centers has been in the Greater Cleveland area for so many years and has a grand following of people who have been helped. The equestrian center was created on the Camp Cheerful property in Strongsville about 15 years ago. And I was there from almost the very beginning, because I grew up with horses, gave it up for career and family. And when I retired, I decided I wanted to give back, and I saw this as a great opportunity.
Q: How does therapeutic horseback riding work?
A: You know, I know this is a science blog, but I would have to say it’s a little bit science and a little bit magic. Horses have a tremendous sensitivity that we, as people, don’t understand. Because I can speak to you. You can cry, I can scream, but a horse doesn’t have verbalization. So their senses work in a whole different way, but their bodies work a lot like our bodies. So we have a combination of things that are going on. A child with a disability that’s physical, like cerebral palsy, could have motion issues—their body’s too tight. It can’t relax, and putting them on the back of a horse makes their body respond to the horse’s warmth and the horse’s mechanics of motion, the horse’s hips moving forward, it mimics human hips, moving as a walking person. So we’ve had children who really improve their walking or learn to walk by learning to ride a horse, strange as it may seem.
Q: That’s really interesting. Which conditions do you think benefit the most from therapeutic horseback riding?
A: I think that that’s almost limitless. What we see is children with physical disabilities. We also see children with emotional disabilities and cognitive disabilities. And one of the things that’s grown in diagnoses over the last 20 years is autism. We treat a lot of children who have autism as part of their diagnosis. And what’s interesting there is the other part of what we talked about in the beginning, where horses’ senses work a little differently than ours. They sense a person as just another being, and they don’t need words, because a lot of our autistic children are reluctant to talk, or haven’t developed speech. So the sensory side of the encounter becomes very important. The horse gives body language to the children; the children give body language back, even if they don’t have words, and whether they’re grooming their horse or walking their horse or riding their horse, there’s signals going back and forth that don’t require the typical human intervention, like, “raise your hand if you want to answer this question.” That doesn’t have to happen. It’s all between the child and the horse. And it works amazingly well. We see a lot of children with autism as well as with physical disabilities.
Q: What are some success stories that you’ve had?
A: There’s just so many. There are parents who will write testimonials that say, “my child has improved in speech.” We’ve had children who spoke their first word ever on the back of a horse. And those are so many, I couldn’t name the children.
We had a young man who at the age of 17 was hit by a drunk driver, and he was a championship wrestler in high school. He spent months in a hospital situation. When we first met him with a physical therapist, he was completely unable to walk. His cognitive functions were disordered because of a traumatic brain injury he sustained.
He still rides with us. Although he spends a good deal of his time in the wheelchair, he does walk. And he learned to walk, really, by riding the horse. His father’s statement was, “my son and I used to spend a lot of time going out in the boat and loved it.” And after his accident, he could not get in and out of the boat and the father could not get him in and out of the boat, but because the horse taught him mobility and balance, he was able to get his son back in the boat to go out and go fishing. So that’s pretty cool.
Q: Is there an age limit to the program?
A: No. I don’t know the oldest rider we’ve had, but I remember a gentleman who was probably in his eighties who had a mental impairment, and because we’re part of the Camp Cheerful complex, there’s day camp and residential camp for children and adults. And he was part of the camp program, had been coming there for years and years and years, and he came to ride. And he loved it.
Q: Who would you say enrolls in your program the most?
A: Today, I would say approximately 70% of our children have autism as part of their diagnosis. It doesn’t mean that’s their singular diagnosis. So autism spectrum, sensory processing, and ADHD, they kind of fall under a very similar window. So I would say that that’s the largest window we have right now of riders.
Q: Is there a minimum age?
A: Four. We do that because hand-eye coordination, core balance, and strength are at that point approaching safe levels for the horse. I think there is an area of therapeutic riding called hippotherapy, which is therapy done with the aid of a specially trained physical therapist or occupational therapist. And I know we no longer have that program, but when we started out 15 years ago, we did. And they would take younger than four-year-olds because it’s a much more one-on-one with a physical therapist approach.
Q: Do you accept volunteers at your organization?
A: We love volunteers! Volunteers are the heart of the program. I’m actually a volunteer. All of our instructors are certified by an international organization, Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. We go through training and retesting every two years. Since I’m retired, I did all that, but I do it as a volunteer. But we probably have about a hundred other volunteers at any time working with the program and the children. It is only supported by three paid people, so that we have volunteers who help clean the barn, who lead the horses, groom the horses, walk side-by-side with the children. It’s a very heartwarming experience for a volunteer.
Q: If somebody wants to be involved as a volunteer, or even enrolling a student, would the website be the best for that?
A: The website‘s awesome for that. They can also easily contact the manager, who is Cory Ramsey, and that’s at 440-238-6200 ext. 225 for ridership or volunteer information.
We also do things like group programs. The horses have been used for different kinds of therapies. Sometimes we do entertain groups that may be from a women’s shelter, or veterans with PTSD. They come as a group and they use the horses not to be ridden, but as just barometers of feelings, helping them to express, helping them to look inside themselves by using the horse’s body language and response. I’m throwing that out there because some of the people who might listen to this blog might be associated with organizations like that, or have someone in their life that needs some additional support. These are primarily centered on adults and youths, not necessarily young children, but abused kids as well as adults.
Q: Have you had any challenges with the organization?
A: Because we’re a volunteer organization, and even with volunteers, we do not show a profit for our efforts, it probably costs us about $80 to do a lesson with each child, and our income from that is only $35 a child. So we’re always looking for help with fundraising. As matter of fact, there’s an event coming up in September, that’s just for fundraising for the Camp Cheerful programs. So I would say sustainability is the tough part.
Even after 15 years, I still get tears in my eyes sometimes when I see things happening with kids that were shut down. We had a little girl that started this five or six weeks ago; autistic and just really disengaged. And she didn’t want to come in the barn. When she came in the barn, she crawled under a table and didn’t want to come out. And she rode the other night, and she was dancing on her way to get into the barn, put on her helmet, was smiling. Couldn’t wait to get to her horse. It was just amazing how the door opens and you see a change.
Q: If you had to sum up the most important thing, what would you say it was?
A: Don’t underestimate the power of a horse to reach inside a person.