Adaptations and Teaching Techniques for Riders with Severe Disabilities, Part 4: Skills & Activities

Adaptations and Teaching Techniques for Riders with Severe Disabilities, Part 4: Skills & Activities

So far I have given notes on the physical and cognitive challenges of severely disabled riders, and the adaptations and support you can use to help teach them how to ride. Now we will discuss the actual riding skills to teach them, and activities that incorporate these skills to motivate riders and keep them engaged. Note some of this has already been touched on in the past parts of this series, but these are more ideas!

Covered on this page:

Riding Skills

While our hope is that any rider can work their way through all the riding skills, many severely disabled riders will be working on the basics for a long time. This is a list of the most common basic skills, corresponding aids, and potential adaptations I’ve used and seen others use with these riders.

In General

  • Be true to the original aids, but adapt the aids in whatever way is best for the rider.
  • The point is communication. Riding skills and aids are about the rider attempting to communicate with the horse.
  • Support the attempts. If the rider attempts to communicate with the horse, use the team to support their communication so the horse understands.
  • Continue to use sidewalkers to help with the original aids as much as possible (for example, leg aids for walk on), because this can create muscle memory, so one day the rider may be able to have a break through and do it themselves.
  • Use your best judgment whether to use one aid or multiple aids. Some riders may benefit from a few aids at once to gain muscle memory, others may need to focus on one and once they get it add another, and so on. Start with the aids that are the easiest for them to do and understand, then add on from there.

“Walk on”: Halt/Walk Transitions

  • Hold reins
    • Grab reins (sidewalker hand reins to them)
    • Pick up reins (on their own)
    • Put reins forward (loosen reins, if already holding them)
  • Seat – balance shift
    • Look up (causes balance change)
    • Sit up straight
    • Lean slightly forward
  • Squeeze legs
    • Sidewalkers help hand over ankle – count down “1, 2, 3, squeeze”
    • Progress to verbal prompt, wait 5 seconds, help hand over ankle
  • Say “Walk On”
    • Touch mane or “push the go button” on the withers – progressively reach further forward
    • High five
    • Handshake
    • Choose walk on image/card
    • Press button with recorded voice (
    • Use display with images and recorded voices (
    • Use other communication devices (
  • Continue to hold reins to keep walking
    • If they let go of the reins, the horse stops, and they need to take hold of the reins to walk on again

“Whoa”: Walk/Halt Transitions

  • Seat – balance shift
    • Sit up straight
  • Say “Whoa”
    • sign language for whoa
    • press “button” on horse’s withers
    • press/show flash card
    • Press button with recorded voice (
    • Use display with images and recorded voices (
  • Use reins
    • Verbally prepare them
    • Sidewalkers may need to hand tap, then do hand over hand

Trotting: Walk/Trot/Walk Transitions

  • Same ideas as for “Walk On” above
  • Use your judgment whether to use similar aids for “walk on” and “trot” so they learn the same aids always make the horse go a gear faster, or different aids so they can easily communicate whether they want walk or trot


  • Voice
    • Tell horse “right” or “left”
  • Seat – balance shift
    • Look (and turn upper body) the direction of the turn
    • You or a volunteer may need to walk in front of them to encourage them to cue them where to look
  • Legs
    • Sidewalkers help hand over ankle
  • Reins
    • Verbally prepare them
    • Sidewalkers may need to hand tap, then do hand over hand
    • Teach Right/Left – put red ribbon or pipe cleaner on the Right rein, or around their wrist


  • This is not technically a riding skill or aid, but since it helps with all riding skills, I’m including it.
  • Use sidewalkers to manipulate posture to teach them correct balance.
  • Work on maintaining midline for 10 seconds, 1 wall, a whole lesson without readjusting, etc.
  • When ready, have sidewalkers let go and spot for progressively longer amounts of time. (You may be surprised at what riders can do on their own when they no longer have someone to lean on!)
  • Dedicate specific times during the lesson to work on posture and attempting to let them balance for longer on their own.


Use Activities that incorporate skills to keep them engaged, or they may tune out. Just skills can be unmotivating or beyond their focus. For example, instead of halt/walk at letters around the arena (uninteresting, hard to find off to the side and small, hard to connect letter to stopping), halt at the ball and play with it then walk on to the next activity (ball is motivating, a common object, and a visual you could put in front of them). One of the keys to creating successful activities is to build on the skills the client already possesses and incorporate sensory stimulation that makes the activity fun and inviting.


  • Touch mane and tail
  • Touch further up mane, further, further!
  • High 5’s – at halt then walk, 5 to each sidewalker alternating (“High five Isabel, High five Lexy, now Isabel, now Lexy!”)
  • Pass rings – make reach in all directions, really push the limits they can stretch, cue sidewalkers to hold it just out of reach
  • Pass ball

Progressive Figures

  • Start with easy-to-balance figures then progress to more challenging ones
  • First Straight Lines
  • Then Turns
  • Then Circles
  • Then Smaller circles
  • Then Serpentines (wide, then narrow; 3 loop, then 5 loop; etc.)
  • Then Figure 8’s (large, then small)

Sensory Activities

  • Give objects to redirect them from self-stimulating or fixating
  • Balls, bean bags, dolls, tools, hula hoops, musical toys, blocks, books
  • Use toys aimed at children at their cognitive level
  • Brushes, groom the horse from its back – practice reaching, order, etc.
  • Cause and effect toys – use to teach cause and effect, allow feelings of success, to motivate (motivation is the effect)
  • Non cause and effect toys (cars, blocks) – use to teach manipulation of objects
  • Ball to toss into box or hoop
  • Sensory bags filled with material to encourage tactile exploration – small balls, bells, sand, packing peanuts, beads, crushed newspaper
  • Sensory board (click here for more about that)

Sorting & Matching

  • Coordinate visual and motor skills
  • Place objects in certain places
  • Make simple so little room for mistake
  • Placing block in correct hole shape
  • Pictures of obstacles – ex) find matching pair, do that object (trot, poles, etc.) then at end let pick which one to do again
  • Pictures, letters, colors, numbers
  • Match objects to pictures of that object, progress to learning to find picture of something they want


  • A type of less complicated social play


  • Walk on to music: whoa when music stops
  • as reinforcer
  • music at different times of the lesson
  • clap to music


  • Place all items for an activity in a workbasket
  • As each task is completed, place it in the basket (indicates a definite start and finish)

Feed horse treat

  • Do after the lesson
  • Helps bonding, see horse up close

Sources for this whole series

Coming up next: Adaptations and Teaching Techniques for Riders with Severe Disabilities, Part 5: Example Riders


Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement!

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