Therapeutic Riding Program's Background Information

Young boy riding horse

The UNH Therapeutic Riding Program has been offered at the University of New Hampshire since 1989, where it serves as a valuable hands-on learning environment for students interested in the therapeutic riding field. The program utilizes the Department's horses, barn, and indoor arena facilities at the UNH Light Horse Center located on the UNH campus in Durham. It is an invaluable part of the Equine Program’s mission to provide students with real-world experiential learning opportunities in the equine industry.

The UNH Therapeutic Riding Program has a tri-partite mission:  to give UNH students the opportunity for hands-on training in the field of therapeutic riding; to provide therapeutic treatment to individuals with physical, emotional and cognitive disabilities; and to create an environment which integrates members of the disabled and able-bodied communities.

Approximately 70-90 clients participate each year. Program services are provided by a UNH faculty member who serves as Director, a PATH Intl certified therapeutic riding instructor, a volunteer coordinator and trained volunteers. A fee is charged for the program. Each participant has individualized short- and long-term goals and objectives and a plan to obtain them. The instructor and, when possible, the participant work together to develop these goals. Lessons are held once a week in sessions scheduled in the spring, summer and fall.  Riders participate in age appropriate, goal oriented activities both off and on the horse depending upon the needs and abilities of the individual participant.

Program Participants include individuals with cerebral palsy, stroke, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, cystic fibrosis, learning disabilities, developmental 'disabilities, seizure disorders, visual impairments, hearing impairments, autism, head injuries, and emotional disabilities. The activities offered in the grooming and riding programs center on abilities rather than disabilities, with participants relating to each other as liable riders. This enhances opportunities for inclusion, and expands participants' confidence and sense of accomplishment. Participants in the program are referred by families and service agencies throughout the seacoast area.

Therapeutic riding is a dynamic treatment utilizing functional riding skills and the frequent, rhythmic, low amplitude movement of the horse to achieve specific physical, cognitive, and social/emotional goals. The non-mounted horsemanship program enables participants who ultimately want to ride in the program to become comfortable with the horse. The ordered process of grooming and tacking the horse provides participants with opportunities to develop listening, thinking, planning, and motor abilities; while it challenges and stimulates their physical and emotional capabilities. The horsemanship program is also important for those unable to ride because of medical contraindications such as contractures or spinal instability; and those unable to have reasonable control while astride a horse due to conditions such as impulsivity or tactile defensiveness.

Physical benefits resulting from the therapeutic riding experience include: stretching; relaxation; strengthening; improvements in balance, coordination and specific movement patterns; mobilization of major muscle groups; and, increased postural control. Riding also stimulates many sensory modalities, including proprioceptic, tactile, auditory, visual, and vestibular. In addition, participation may enhance attention span, sequencing, organizational skills, motor planning, and the ability to follow multi-level directions.

The therapeutic riding venue also provides significant benefits to individuals with emotional and cognitive disabilities. All participants in therapeutic riding have the opportunity to bond with a large, responsive animal and become involved in activities that focus on self-improvement, teamwork, and control, rather than competition with other humans. The rider receives unconditional love from the horse he/she is working with. Human bonding with an animal, enhanced psychological wellness, pride in accomplishment, and increased self-esteem may also be achieved through participation in a variety of adaptive equine activities. This experience provides an opportunity to build a strong self-concept and encourages positive interpersonal and social interactions.

Each rider may require the assistance of up to four volunteers: a "leader" for the horse, two sidewalkers for the rider and an assistant.  In addition, volunteers work with select participants in the grooming and preparation of horses before class. The Therapeutic Riding Program is successful because a large corps of committed volunteers work long hours to provide this service. Approximately 50-75 volunteers provide support during each spring, summer and fall session. More than 600 volunteers have been trained, and subsequently participated, in the UNH Therapeutic Riding Program. All volunteers participate in safety training and work under the supervision of the therapeutic riding instructor. Volunteers are assigned to specific program participants in order to foster the development of ongoing relationships that benefit the participant's therapeutic goals.