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Horse therapy yields unexpected benefits
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- When all else fails, try using horses.
Participants in Mississippi State University’s first Therapeutic Riding Expo on April 14 had this advice for anyone who would listen: Horses can help with physical, mental, emotional and communication skills, even when progress from other therapies has slowed or ended. The benefits are not limited to riders with special needs.
Janey Linley of Starkville said both of her daughters have benefitted from the MSU therapeutic riding program. Paige Linley was born with cerebral palsy, a disorder that often affects muscle tone, movement and motor skills. Her sister, Megan Linley, certainly did not want to be left out of the fun, so she joined in the horseback riding experience.
The Linley sisters and about 40 other riders demonstrated their skills in front of an enthusiastic crowd of family, friends and supporters.
“This event -- with the number of riders, volunteers and spectators -- reflects the explosion of interest in this type of program in the community,” Linley said. “There are so many generations involved, and the volunteers contribute part of the fun for all the riders.”
Linley said the relationships developed through the program have been an unexpected blessing.
“Some of the volunteers have been sitters for my daughters, and they have brought the girls presents just to show how much they care,” she said. “Volunteers do much more than just walk beside the riders and keep them safe in the arena.”
As a therapeutic experience, horseback riding also has advanced Paige’s physical progress, Linley said.
“Riding strengthens a person’s core muscles. It has even helped Paige with swallowing,” she said. “She does other therapies at school, but this is more like play than work. Still, it’s exhausting for her.”
Cassie Brunson, coordinator of the MSU Extension Service Therapeutic Riding and Activity Center, organized the event at the Mississippi Horse Park. Riders received horse trophies at the conclusion of their show classes.
“Riding in front of a crowd can be a scary thing, but it can also give each rider a sense of accomplishment,” Brunson said. “They showed courage and pride as they rode to music in the big arena with their volunteers beside them.”
Brunson said the expo would not have been possible without the volunteers’ support. A typical rider has a person walking on each side and another dedicated to leading the horse.
Lantz Stewart is a regular volunteer at the Therapeutic Riding and Activity Center, located at the 4-H Elizabeth A. Howard arena in West Point. The West Point firefighter and team roper is a natural fit for the volunteer program.
“I’ve always enjoyed being around horses and know how much horses can teach kids responsibility, whether they have a disability or not,” Stewart said. “It is fun to see the bonds form between the riders and their horses. I can see the physical improvements for each rider after just a couple of laps in the arena.”
For more information on the MSU therapeutic riding program, contact Brunson at firstname.lastname@example.org.