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As I am driving to Freedom Ride to teach for the day my mind begins to race. “I hope I have enough volunteers for all my lessons today:”, with that first thought the flood gates of my mind open and I begin thinking….

I hope Zeus is feeling better because I really need him for John’s lesson.  John has made such great progress and I don’t  want to cancel his lesson.  Last week was a great accomplishment for John, I still can not believe I cried when I saw him walk around the arena with no side walkers, sitting up straight, completely independent.

Last week was the first time he has been able to have the taste of freedom and ride independently. John, has been in a wheel chair and depended on his caretakers since his accident seven years ago. I begin to smile as I drive and realize how far John has comes over the past two years at Freedom Ride.

My thoughts switch to Ashley,  I really hope she overcomes her fear of cantering off the lounge line, today. I’m a little confused as to where her fear is coming from, she was cantering by herself beautifully just a couple of weeks ago. I need to talk to her mom about it, maybe, there is something that happened outside of her riding lesson that I am not aware of. She was making so much progress and I really want her to show in the walk, trot, canter class at Special Olympics this year.

Then I remember,  I need to complete all the paperwork for Special Olympics and I have to get all my progress notes to the program director from the previous session.  This is the moment, when I start to feel overwhelmed about my day and I haven’t even started teaching.

Ethan pops into my mind, and I can’t wait to see that big smile again when he starts trotting. That is one of those moments when I realize why I love teach therapeutic riding. What an incredible feeling to see, this little y year old, laughing and smiling when just three weeks ago he was afraid to even get on Pete the pony.

I have to give Titan a strong leader in today’s lessons. He was nipping yesterday when we went into the trot. I have to find time today and work with him. He is getting bored with the lessons and I need take him out on a trial ride to break up his day and get him out of the arena, at that moment I begin to be consumed with thoughts about all the horses and their needs.

I start to realize that my day is becoming a lot longer than I first anticipated.  I also have to get on Argus and ride him at some point.  He was not exercised that much in the past week and I need to work with him if I want him to stay in our program. I see so much potential in him and think he would be a great addition. We only have six more weeks until the trial period is over and we need to make our decision whether not keep him for the program. He is so willing and level-headed, he just needs a little work since he is an 8-year-old warm blood and has not been worked in over a year.

 

I pull into the parking lot, and remember that Lou, my led volunteer is on vacation. I depend on him to keep things running while I am teaching and I can not do my job effectively without him. He keeps the barn going and the lessons on schedule. I really count on him to help with tacking up, bringing horses in from the pasture, feeding and managing the other volunteers. “What am I going to do without him, today?”

My day begins and as I am walking to the stable I see that Joan is there. I take a deep breath of relief.  Joan, our other lead volunteer, must have heard me say that Lou was going to be out today and decided to show up and help. Freedom Ride would not exist without the support and dedication of the wonderful volunteers and I am thankful for them everyday.

This is just a glimpse into my life as a therapeutic riding instructor.It has been the most challenging and rewards position I have ever held. I had the pleasure of being part of an amazing team of loyal horses, staff and volunteers at Freedom Ride Therapeutic Riding Center in downtown Orlando FL.  Freedom Ride is dedicated to enriching the lives and experiences of children and adults with mental and physical disabilities by engaging them in various equestrian activities designed to promote and improve physical, mental and social well-being. Freedom Ride is built on the conviction that we are not defined by our limitations. I am honored to have been part of the Freedom Ride team and working with amazing staff, students and horses. Freedom Ride truly exemplifies the meaning of Horsepower for the Spirit.

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Equestrian vaulting was on the top of my list of riding disciplines that I wanted to learn, while traveling  the United States in search for the ultimate riding experience. I had no idea what I was in for when I contacted Sara Nicolson of the Poway Valley Vaulters, at the Rolling Hills Stable in Poway, CA…

I was welcomed with open arms by the students and coaches, Bonnie Bruce and Sara Nicholson, when I arrived for my first vaulting lesson. Quickly realizing, their philosophy is about having fun while developing coordination, balance and strength as you work in harmony with your equine partner. The Poway Valley Vaulters offers an atmosphere that is very laid back and community focused. Everyone participating in the lesson is responsible for setting up and breaking down all equipment involved in that day’s lesson as well as grooming and caring for the horse that will be their vaulting partner that day.

Once the two barrels and mats are set up, Sara Nicholson, led the group with stretching exercises to warm up everyone muscles before tackling the gymnastic moves on top of the barrels. I watched as each student mounted the barrel. I quickly realized that this was completely foreign to me, as I stood there in tights and sneakers (not riding pants and boots) and my transitional leg up.

Although, there are many ways to mount in equestrian vaulting, we practiced the simple leg up mount, where the rider is facing the horse’s head with their body parallel to the horse’s back while your partner counts to three lifting your bend left leg,  guiding you on top of your mount. In this particular mounting style the rider focuses on their right leg going straight up to the sky, perpendicular to the horse’s back, then gently sitting up straight in perfect posture on top of you mount (horse or barrel). This is no easy task and requires a lot of upper body strength, coordination and balance.

As the rest of the students practiced their individual and partner routines on the barrel, Sara, took me aside and explained the origins of vaulting, benefits and the different styles and movements required in vaulting competitions. In individual competitions there are six compulsory exercises that must be performed without dismounting: basic seat, flag, mill, click or scissors, stand and flank.  The compulsories are performed in succession without pause or dismounts.

Sara explained each compulsory movement starting with the basic seat moving through all six exercises. As I practiced each movement I became more and more comfortable and was eventually able to move to some freestyle movements that included hand stands, kneeling, standing and aerial moves such as flips. As this begin my first lesson,  I chose to stick with the easier movements such as kneeling and standing.  I was very comfortable with each compulsory movement, as well as standing and kneeling. I got the courage to  do a front roll, however I was on a non-moving barrel.

After about 90 minutes of practicing on the barrel, I was ready to mount an actual moving horse. I am not one to get nervous especially around horses, but right before mounting the horse my palms began sweating and butterflies filled my stomach with anxiety. Once, I was mounted (leg up while the horse is moving) all my fears went away and I got comfort in knowing that I was on the back of a beautiful horse that has done this for years.

I practiced each compulsory movement at the walk and eventually working my way into the trot, holding each movement for 4 seconds, in succession without pausing. I started with the basic seat, which I sat astride with my arms held to the side raised to ear level. My legs were wrapped around the horse’s barrel, soles facing rearward, with toes down and feet arched. Totally different from the heels down approach that I am so costumed to.

After the basic seat I quickly hopped to my knees and extended my right leg straight out behind me, holding it slightly above my head,  parallel to the horse’s spine. My other leg was had equal pressure distributed through my shin and foot. I learned that to avoid digging your knee into the horse’s back your weight should be on the back on your ankle. Once, my legs were in the correct position I raised my left arm stretching it forward, also parallel to the horse’s spine.

After the flag, I moved into the basic seat to begin the mill movement. The mill starts from the astride position, bringing my right leg over the horse’s neck, while my hand grips were released and retaken as I brought my leg over. I brought my left leg in a full arc over the croup of the horse, again with a change of grips, before my right leg followed it, and the left leg moves over the neck to complete the full turn.  The mill brought flashbacks of me on my pony as a young rider completing “around the world” at the walk, trot and canter during my lounge line lessons. Who knew many years later I would be doing the same thing.

The click was the most difficult for me out of all six compulsory movements. From the basic seat position, I swung on my left leg over the horse’s neck, seating sideways, and then swinging my right leg over the horse’s croup so I was sitting backwards on the horse. While grasping the surcingle handles I quietly swung my leg forward giving me momentum to left my entire body off the horse’s back while my leg swing together, clicking my heals like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. This movement requires an immense amount of upper body strength that by the time the lesson was over my arms were shaking from fatigue.

The stand was next in succession and I wanted to complete this at the walk, but to be safe Sara and Bonnie provided me with a spotter, since I had never stood on a horse before. From the basic seat position I moved to my shins and immediately onto both feet, I released my hand grips and held the hands of my spotter. Once I felt comfortable I began to straighten up with both my knees bent, with my tail bone tucked for balance. After a couple of strides at the walk I was able to let go of my spotter’s hands and held my hands straight out as in the basic seat.  I was amazed that I was able to hold my standing position for 4 seconds at the walk.

The final movement the flank, is also the dismount in vaulting. From the basic seat, I swung my legs forward to create momentum, then swinging my legs backward, and rolling onto my stomach in an arch of the surcingle, with a full extension of my legs raise up behind me,  the goal to nearly reach a handstand. When coming down,  I brought my legs to the right side of the horse, pushing off the surcingle, landing on my feet on the outside of the lounging horse with a huge smile.

My experience at Poway Valley Vaulters was fun and educational. I appreciate the staff and students for making me feel as though I was part of the team for the day and allowing me to drop in on their class.  This experience created a passion for learning more about vaulting and about all the benefits vaulting has to offer to equestrian, non-equestrian and therapeutic riders.

A big thank you to Wil Fernandez for the wonderful photography.

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Cross-country equestrian jumping is an endurance test, and is one of the three phases of the sport of eventing; it may also be a stand alone competition known as hunter trials or simply “cross-country”, however these tend to be lower level, local competitions.

The object of the endurance test is to prove the speed, endurance and jumping ability of the true cross-country horse when he is well trained and brought to the peak of condition. At the same time, it demonstrates the rider’s knowledge of pace and the use of this horse across country.

The cross-country test takes place on the second day of an eventing competition.  It is usually the most appealing to spectators and riders. The object of this test is to prove the speed, endurance, and jumping ability of the horse over varied terrain and obstacles.  In order to accomplish this task, the horse and rider must be at peak condition. The horse must be brave and obedient, and the rider must use knowledge of pace in order to expend only as much of the horse’s energy as necessary.

The cross-country course covers approximately 2.75 to 4 miles and consists of approximately 12-20 fences (lower levels), or 30-40 at the higher levels, placed on a long outdoor circuit. These fences consist of very solidly built natural objects (telephone poles, stone walls, etc.) as well as various obstacles such as ponds and streams, ditches, drops and banks, and combinations including several jumping efforts based on objects that would commonly occur in the countryside.   The cross-country phase is ridden at a gallop, with exact speed requirements depending on the level of competition. The aim of each team of horse and rider is to complete the course on time and with as few penalties as possible. Penalties can be accrued through jumping errors (horse refuses or runs out at an obstacle, rider falls off on course, etc.) or by exceeding the optimum time allowed. Cross-country is the only sport where two minds and bodies are working together, pitted against the clock, to cross the finish line.

Cross-country riding, and indeed eventing in general, is a fun and exciting sport but is certainly not for inexperienced or unfit. Horses and riders need to be comfortable with each other, confident and well-trained. Riders in particular must be used to riding for long periods of time before they even start to attempt cross country circuits. But, for those who are brave enough to try it, and talented enough to master it, cross country riding is an exhilarating and rewarding sport. It will certainly keep both rider and horse fit, and improve their work as a team, which in turn, will help them excel in all areas of riding.

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Show jumping is a relatively new equestrian sport. Until the Enclosure Acts which came into force in England in the 18th century there had been little need for horses to jump fences routinely, but with this act of parliament came new challenges for those who followed fox hounds.

The enclosures act brought fencing and boundaries to many parts of the country as common ground was dispersed among the wealthy landowners. This meant that those wishing to pursue their sport now needed horses that were capable of jumping these obstacles.

Today, Show Jumping, comprises of a series of typically brightly colored fences usually made up of lightweight rails that are easily knocked down. The test takes place in an enclosed ring and the course must be negotiated through a variety of fences of differing heights, widths, and technicality, in order for the horse and rider to successfully complete the event.  This requires the horse be balanced and supple for tight turns and short distances between fences. He must be able to lengthen or shorten his stride in an instant. Therefore, the rider must know exactly where he is on the approach to a fence, with an obedient horse that will respond to his commands.

The show jumping course requires very exact riding; it consists of between 12 and 15 show jumping obstacles, which normally include at least one combination, two spread fences, and in some cases a ditch. This phase is also timed, with penalties being given for every second over the required time.  Jumping skills,  like eventing,  tests the fitness and stamina of the horse and rider. The winner is the horse and rider with the fewest penalties. Awards are usually presented while mounted, before the placed riders take a lap of honor around the arena.

For the spectator, this sport is both exciting and breathtaking to watch, as just one single rail knocked down can change the final standings dramatically.

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Dressage is a French term meaning “training” and its purpose is to develop the horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to work making him calm, supple and attentive to his rider. Originally designed to show the horse’s ability to perform intricate movements on the parade involved with reviewing troops, today the dressage test comprises a set series of movements performed in an enclosed arena.

Precision, smoothness and suppleness show off the horse’s obedience. Ideally the horse appears to perform the test moments of its own accord, working in harmony with its rider. The test is scored on each movement with the overall harmony and precision of the test taken into consideration. It comprises an exact sequence of movements ridden in an enclosed arena.  The test is judged by one or more judges who are looking for balance, rhythm and suppleness and most importantly, obedience of the horse and its connection with the rider.

Competitive dressage involves nine progressive levels incorporating multiple tests within each level. Special tests are also written for musical freestyle, sport horse breeding and performances incorporating multiple horses and riders.

Each movement in the test is scored on a scale from 0 to 10, with a score of “10” being the highest possible mark and with the total maximum score for the test varying depending on the level of competition and the number of movements. Therefore, if one movement is poorly executed, it is still possible for the rider to get a good overall score if the remaining movements are very well executed. The marks are added together and any errors of course deducted. To convert this score to penalty points, the average marks of all judges are converted to a percentage of the maximum possible score, multiplied by a co-efficient decided by the governing body and then subtracted from 100.

Dressage is occasionally referred to as “Horse Ballet”.  Its fundamental purpose is to develop, through standardized progressive training methods, a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to perform. At the peak of a dressage horse’s gymnastic development, it can smoothly respond to a skilled rider’s minimal aids by performing the requested movement while remaining relaxed and appearing effortless, looking as if the horse was dancing.

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Eventing is the “equestrian triathlon”. It involves working with a horse in three different disciplines of riding.  The three phases are: dressage, endurance (or cross-country), and show jumping. It was developed in Germany to test the military charger. This equestrian sport is still called the “Militaire,” under which name it was first introduced at the Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1912. The tests of this newly organized equestrian competition were patterned after the training and testing of military chargers — precision, elegance, and obedience on the parade ground; stamina, versatility and courage on marches and in battle; cross-country jumping ability and endurance in traveling great distances over difficult terrain and formidable obstacles in the relaying of important dispatches; and jumping ability in the arena to prove the horse’s fitness to remain in service. Eventing has now evolved into an exciting sport attracting interest from all levels of sports enthusiasts, from weekend hobby riders to professional international stars. It is, also,  the only high-risk Olympic sport where men and women compete as equals, with no separate divisions. Some of the top riders in the world today are women from all over the world.

Dressage

The dressage phase begins every eventing competition. In French, dressage means “training.” Originally designed to show the horse’s ability to perform intricate movements on the parade involved with reviewing troops, today the dressage test comprises a set series of movements performed in an enclosed arena. Precision, smoothness and suppleness show off the horse’s obedience.

Dressage is very important to the three-day event horse, it tests the level of communication between the horse and rider. Displaying the power and grace required to perform each movement with balance, rhythm, and suppleness. It also helps to develop the muscular strength needed in the other two days of competition, endurance day and show jumping, where the horse must be unbelievably fit and strong, and able to lengthen and shorten stride at a gallop. Due to these high demands, the three-day event horse is extremely fit, and only strong, confident riders possess the skills needed to harness and direct the horses energy into a both polished and powerful performance.

Cross Country

The cross-country test takes place on the second day of competition. It is usually the most appealing to spectators and riders. The object of this test is to prove the speed, endurance, and jumping ability of the horse over varied terrain and obstacles.  In order to accomplish this task, the horse and rider must be at peak condition. The horse must be brave and obedient, and the rider must use knowledge of pace in order to expend only as much of the horse’s energy as necessary.

Cross-country riding, and indeed eventing in general, is a fun and exciting sport but is certainly not for inexperienced or unfit. Horses and riders need to be comfortable with each other, confident and well-trained. Riders in particular must be used to riding for long periods of time before they even start to attempt cross country circuits.

Show Jumping

The third and final test takes place in the show jumping arena. A show jumping course comprises a series of typically brightly colored fences usually made up of lightweight rails that are easily knocked down. The test takes place in an enclosed ring and the course must be negotiated through a variety of fences of differing heights, widths, and technicality, in order for the horse and rider to successfully complete the event.  This requires the horse be balanced and supple for tight turns and short distances between fences. He must be able to lengthen or shorten his stride in an instant. Therefore, the rider must know exactly where he is on the approach to a fence, with an obedient horse that will respond to his commands.

“Trot Up” or “Horse Inspection” of three-day eventing

At the beginning of a three-day event, and also before the show jumping phase, all horses are inspected by a equine veterinarian to ensure that they are fit to complete. This is very formal, with well-groomed and braided horses, and professionally dressed riders. The vet determines if the horse is suitable to compete with a “pass” or “fail”. This is a crucial time for both the horse and rider. This evaluation determines whether the horse may continue with the competition.  A vet can request that a horse be sent to a holding box, where it will be re-assessed again before being allowed to continue with the competition.

In lower levels of competition the horse’s movement may be analyzed as they finish the cross-country phase.  At that time, the horse and rider are asked to trot briefly after crossing the finish line to satisfy the vet of the horse’s soundness.

In eventing, the riders are considerably experienced in all branches of equitation and possess a precise knowledge of the horse’s ability . While the horse requires a degree of competence resulting from intelligent and rational training. Eventing is the one equestrian sport that covers every aspect of horsemanship: the harmony between horse and rider that characterize Dressage; the contact with nature, stamina and extensive experience essential for the Cross Country; the precision, agility and technique involved in Jumping.

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For those who are recovering from injury or who live with mental or physical disability, the human-horse relationship can open the door to an entirely new realm of possibilities. Horse and human become partners in a therapeutic relationship which offers a multitude of opportunities to focus on and explore abilities rather than disabilities.  Students learn to be at ease, rather than dis-eased.

Physical aging, another component is known to be the cumulative effects of lifestyle choices, and unfortunately, many people with injury/disability necessarily lead sedentary lives.  Furthermore, the ability to live independently depends largely on a person’s degree of mobility, and sedentary lifestyle contributes to mobility issues.  Therapeutic horseback riding improves the strength, tone, flexibility, and reflexes of postural muscles and leg muscles, thereby increasing stability of gait and balance in people with mild to moderate mobility disabilities.  Those with more severe disabilities benefit from improved balance, coordination, and postural control essential to healthy respiratory and digestive function.

Carriage driving also addresses postural control, use of diaphragmatic and core muscle groups, eye and hand coordination and socialization and communication skills. Although clients aren’t mounted, participation in this program increases physical activity levels even for clients in wheelchairs. These physical benefits contribute to the maintenance of independent lifestyles in individuals recovering from injury or living with disability.

Physical Benefits of Therapeutic Horseback Riding

Therapeutic horseback riding improves the strength, tone, flexibility, and reflexes of postural muscles and leg muscles, thereby increasing stability of gait and balance in people with mild to moderate mobility disabilities. Those with more severe disabilities benefit from improved balance, coordination, and postural control essential to healthy respiratory and digestive function. Carriage driving also addresses postural control, use of diaphragmatic and core muscle groups, eye and hand coordination and socialization and communication skills. Although students aren’t mounted, participation in this program increases physical activity levels even for clients in wheelchairs. These physical benefits contribute to the maintenance of independent lifestyles in individuals recovering from injury or living with disability.

Psychological Benefits of Therapeutic Horseback Riding

Individuals recovering from injury or living with disability need to be engaged in healthy, supportive relationships to help enhance their sense of self-confidence and autonomy, and to cope effectively with the challenges of their circumstances. Equestrian pursuits, by their very nature are an exercise in cooperation, connection and relationship building. They require the cultivation of mutual trust and respect, patience and compassion, assertiveness and sensitivity, focus and perseverance. Horses, like people, respond positively in relationships characterized by these elements. As students practice the use of these skills and qualities in the saddle and on the ground, horses respond in kind rewarding and reinforcing clients’ development of healthy behaviors and coping mechanisms. These skills and qualities contribute to clients’ ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships with family members and friends and helps develop an overall sense of self-confidence and autonomy; all of which enhance the individual’s ability to cope with practically any challenge life offers.

Educational Benefits of Therapeutic Horseback Riding

Therapeutic horseback riding assists in building a good base for education by aiding in the students ability to learn. Therapeutic riding can help in the basic skill of remedial reading, by assisting students with the foundation of reading, recognizing the different shapes, sizes and colors. These educational lessons can be taught much more easily on horseback, as part of a games and activities. Remedial math is also learned by counting the horses steps, objects around the arena, or even the horses legs.  Activities that involve addition and subtraction can be taught throughout a therapeutic riding session with the use of the horse, volunteers, and other students. With these concepts being taught through games willingness to learn and participate in increased.

Social Benefits of Therapeutic Horseback Riding

Many adults recovering from injury or living with disability, particularly older adults, have limited opportunity for social interaction due to multiple factors including transportation, financial restrictions, and health issues. Decreased levels of social interaction and engagement have been shown to contribute to depression, self-neglect, a sense of loneliness and low self-esteem. Students  are stimulated and find themselves interacting and engaging with volunteers, instructors, horse-handlers, therapists, other students, and the horses themselves. Moreover, volunteers and students vary in ages, from teens to senior citizens, providing enjoyable intergenerational interaction and the opportunity for students to make new friends and expand their social network.

Like recreational riding, therapeutic riding is an excellent form of exercise therapy that is fun, safe, challenging and socially rewarding. The goals of therapeutic and recreational riding revolve around learning horsemanship, improving basic riding skills and many times learning a specific riding discipline such as dressage or western pleasure. In therapeutic riding, special attention is paid to facilitating improvements in musical strength, coordination, balance, stamina, self confidence and social interaction. Lesson plans may be tailored individually to address clients’ special needs. The therapeutic riding instructors are specially trained and certified to instruct students with a wide variety of physical and mental disabilities, as well as students who are not disabled.  Therapeutic and recreational sessions are conducted according to each rider’s interests, needs, abilities and rate of progress.

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