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Children with Special Needs Benefit from Horseback Riding



Most of us hear the word therapy and think it means waiting too long for an appointment in a bland, grey-carpeted lounge, shifting on the cracking vinyl of hard chairs and sighing along with the rest of the clients. Not so at Bit by Bit.

Just north of Tulsa, a stable of 17 horses and a volunteer staff of 100 help area children find the benefits of therapeutic riding. Linda Barron, executive director of Bit by Bit, began the program 17 years ago as a way to transition into retirement and help her community. Barron retired, and then un-retired to muck the stalls and groom the horses and watch the children grow.

According to Barron, therapeutic riding has origins that reach back to Europe in the 1800s. A dressage rider was infected with polio, and had made returning to her horse a primary goal. Her therapist noticed that the rider was making faster rehabilitation process than her other clients, the only difference being horseback riding.

Barron explained that therapeutic riding helps to work the musculature of any “child with any identified special need, from a very involved quadriplegic rider to a rider with a tracheotomy to ADHD, cognitive delays, emotional delays, emotional disturbances, or issues that occur alongside other primary diagnoses.”

With degrees in special education and an extensive equine background, Barron understands what horseback riding can do for children with special needs. Along with the core muscle work, riding also promotes emotional growth and cognitive development.

“Horses move three dimensionally,” she said, “just like humans do.” As we walk forward, our entire body shifts with us through space. Often, the participants at Bit By Bit have little opportunity to use the muscles from the shoulders to the pelvis, Barron explained. Riding on a horse, in specific positions, “duplicates this movement,” which allows the muscles to be worked. Additionally, this lights up the areas of the brain that coordinate with those muscles. In other words, a child with special needs may have lost the brain inventory associated with these body movements, and riding helps to refresh that memory.

The benefits don’t end with physical or cognitive outcomes. “It is an entire body experience,” Barron said, “an emotional experience.” She said that it can be as simple seeing a wheelchair- bound woman sit high enough that not everyone is looking down on her. She said that when she hears a child sign her first word, or enunciate his first word, “it’s like magic.”

Barron said that therapeutic riding fills a void, and helps parents of children with special needs identify goals for their children. Often, Bit by Bit clients are released early from school, so that their participation is counted as part of classroom therapy. Volunteers take into consideration parental goals as well as students’ IEPs. She said it can even help students who have “tactile defensiveness.” For example, since all riders must wear helmets, this has opened some tactilely defensive children to learn to wear hats in the summer or winter, when protection offers safety.

Finally, Barron said her friends tease her when she says they have 74 clients, because families are touched by the positive effects on their children. She said riding helps children become more available for family events, enabling them to sit longer at a restaurant, for example. It also helps the often-isolated parent of the child with special needs gain a sense of belonging with other parents who are talking about homework and sports and schedules and grades. When the child is participating in and growing from Bit By Bit, the parents and the child have a physical activity that they can talk about. Barron said therapeutic riding treats the whole family.

For information on this program, see bitbybitok.org, or call the facility at 918.371.1750.