Disabilities Teaching Tips for Therapeutic Riding – 2015 PATH Intl Conf

Today is the last day of the 2015 Path Intl Conference, but by far not my last post. However, instead of posting notes from specific seminars, I’m going to group some of them by theme because I think that would be more helpful. So here are a bunch of notes and tips about teaching specific disabilities.

(From presenter and attendees of the Community Connections Instructor seminar by Jen Donahue of Equest, Dallas TX)

Behavioral Issues (“Difficult Students”)

  • Ask their parents how they want you to handle it
  • Give them leadership in the class, demonstrate or help out (take turns to avoid playing favorites)
  • Ask them to assist other students
  • If it’s a private lesson, make it a group, so they become the role model, or it gives them a role model
  • Sometimes they just don’t like certain instructors, or their hair color, so switch instructors, or wear a wig
  • Reflect on yourself, do they not like your tone of voice? Are you impatient, less tolerant?
  • Praise another rider who is doing the correct behaviors

Fear of heights, gravitational insecurity

  • Often seen in Downs Syndrom, vestibular issues, balance issues, brain damage, no depth of field vision.
  • We think the horse is close enough to the block, to them it looks like the Grand Canyon.
  • Paint the surface of the block a little different color, to differentiate it from the ground below.
  • Add grip/sand to the block so it feels more secure.
  • Get the horse closer.
  • Acknowledge the fear, it is real.

Relational/Social Issues

  • Bully In The Barn book – use it for teaching to relational issues, goes through all the roles, have kids ID who is who in the horse herd and their life

Refusal to mount (question asked about a rider with ASD screaming before mounting)

  • Considering for the first few lessons it’s a new place, new animal, and new people, it’s understandable.
  • Usually if you just force them on and go, within a few steps they’ll quiet. If not the first time, then usually within a few weeks. Ask their parents if they prefer you to push through it, or take a different approach.
  • Create mounting protocol. “You need to be quiet because we need the horse to know you’re ready to get on.” They’re motivated to work with the horse. The person has to signal to the horse that they’re ready.
  • Use their interest. If they like to draw, paint with the volunteer next to the stall, then paint by the horse, then painted on the horse. Use an activity to follow through.

Severely Cognitively Challenged

  • Model a lot
  • Dance and sing to make it fun – ex) for shifting over
  • Work to their mental age
  • Set boundaries with clear expectations – even if it takes standing for 20 min because they won’t 2 point.
  • Move behavioral modifications will occur if you’re very clear.
  • Lots of pictures, matching cards, to get them to interact with volunteers.
  • Remember they probably are doing more here than anywhere else or in their home, because they have a reason to talk.
  • Lay the law down. Be clear. Tell them, “This is what I expect of you, it is your job to hold your reins. I expect you to sit quietly, waiting on the bench.”
  • Can help their parents. “Peter, when you go home, I expect you to be nice to your parents.” The next week ask if he was nice and they say he was rude two times. So he only gets to ride 20 minutes this week.
  • For those who jump off horse – if head dive, lock into thigh hold and bump his shoulder back up and he’s not coming down. If they throw themselves backward, push them back up without breaking them. Use a gait belt.
  • They’ve gotten their way for so long by throwing fits. Just let them scream. For the others, have the volunteers help them. The screamer, park them in the middle of the arena and they can join the rest of the class. OR change the target. You’re moving around so much, until my horse knows he can keep you safe, he’s in time out. So it’s not about him but the horse. Present calm and soft.

Attachment Disorders

(From “The importance of attachment and relationship building in therapeutic horseback riding” by Lauren Weisberg)

Attachment styles:

  • Everyone has components of each, and may vary depending on who you’re with (parent, spouse)
  • Secure = trusting, can separate from parent, seek comfort from relationships, comfortable sharing feelings
  • Anxious-ambivalent = suspicious, distressed when parents leave and hostile when they return, highly emotional, move both toward and away from relationships
  • Avoidant = doesn’t seek parental comfort, self soothes, avoids intimacy, doesn’t share feelings, doesn’t seek relationships
  • Disorganized = apprehensive, sometimes takes on parental role, mix of avoidant an anxious, numb then flooded with emotions, fearful of others
  • Reactive attachment disorder – seen in adopted from bad orphanages, from severe disorganized attachment style, severely abusive situations
  • Horses have attachment styles too, though it’s not that well researched. They usually prefer food and safety to praise as reward. Some prefer men or women, certain clients, groundwork or riding. Parelli’s Horsenalities outlines one theory of how horses work with humans.

Understand attachment styles:

  • Our attachment style causes/dictates our beliefs about self and others – if you see others as trustworthy, if you reach out to others
  • Affects learning – it’s hard to learn if you don’t feel safe
  • Affects therapeutic growth – which is hard to do if you’re worried about survival
  • If psychological needs are not being met, engagement with the horse cannot occur
  • No significant learning can take place without significant relationship
  • Problems in attachment early on can contribute to mood, anxiety, dissociative, eating, borderline personality, and antisocial personality disorders

Application to TR

  • Your attachment style affects how you interact with coworkers and horses
  • Your past and childhood experiences may affect how you interact with what’s happening and how you relate to the client.
  • The rider’s attachment style affects how they interact with you, the team, and the horses
  • Riders with attachment disorders may dissociate a lot. They may use the horse as a tool because they’re afraid of the relationship, instead taking control to the extent of being abusive. They may transfer past experiences, seeing the TRI as some important figure from the past and react based on that past, not based on what is actually happening.
  • Riders may take a long time to bond with the horse. But don’t assume that just because you don’t see it, it’s not happening. What they project may be very different from their internal reality. They won’t tell you they’re starting to relate, but you’ll see more receptiveness to the horse.
  • Riders will learn better from someone, and some horse, that they trust
  • Horses promote trust and seeking safety from somewhere or someone, because they are big scary animals.
  • Promote building a relationship with the horse
    • Start off on the ground, not riding, trying to get them to relate to the horse
    • Brush the horse
    • Talk to the horse
    • Tell the horse stories
    • If the rider doesn’t want to relate to the horse, use mutuality – you do something for me, then I’ll do something for you.
  • Promote attachment while riding through:
    • Play! Play with them
    • Playful copycat, mirroring the child
    • Hand over hand prompting – touch is important, incorporate the caregiver to help them attach to them
    • Have the caregiver ride at the same time, so the relationship is not built with the instructor but the parent, working on seeing them as someone they can trust

Autism Spectrum Disorder

(From presenter and attendees of the Community Connections Instructor seminar by Jen Donahue of Equest, Dallas TX)

  • Management starts as soon as they arrive. They shouldn’t be playing in dirt etc. Talk to the parents (“they’ll faint, cry, or hug you”). Set clear expectations and stick to it. “I need you parents to help me get them into the property, get their helmets, and sit quietly on the bench.” (It took Jen D 6 months for her difficult client to learn to do all that, with constant redirection).
  • Do your homework. Ask their parents what the child is interested in. Use their interest.
  • Meet their needs. If they need to mount right away, do it. If they need to get there a half hour early and go through a whole transition routine, do that.
  • Use lists and icons, the same every single week. Let them know ahead of time if changing the horse. For example one kid loves to go outside, so he has a list of 10 things he must do on the horse before he can go on a trail ride, such as go outside, such as halt, return his ball, etc. the same every week, and he can’t trail ride until he does it all. Volunteers know the list and help him. Eventually it clicks and they do it all by themselves.
  • When you’ve noticed you’ve lost them, trot them off, then usually you’ll have enough attention after to ask them to pick up their reins, walk to the pole and halt. Then you might have to trot them off again.
  • Learn basic sign language and/or invent your own. Create one for “no” to break fixation, one for “sit tall,” and “wait quietly.” Use eye contact. Make clear expectations.
  • Ask are we turning left or right today. They choose in whatever way they can. If they don’t, say gosh, we’re not being safe today, should we go back [from the trail ride]? And they usually do it.
  • Consider sensory input from their mount.  Sometimes they are mismatched and the rider won’t participate with a movement they don’t like.
  • Practice skills on the ground first. If they can’t sit still on the horse, learn to stand quietly on the ground. It may be a slower process, you just have to wait it out.
  • Write out a social story to tell them about the plan for the day. Or use icons, pictures on flash cards, halt/basketball.
  • May need to use same warm-ups or lesson plan every week. For example, red/green light, with icon cards, for warmup every single week.
  • “Am I Happy?” Book – has facial signs for kids with autism, look as horses and ID what the horse looks like
  • iPad Autismapps – apps and services they already use, add in pictures of the center – create a social story on the iPad – or use to take pics and send to parents ahead of time to make a social story and prepare

(from “ASD Insights” by Suellen and Elizabeth Hill)

How the brain works

  • The big pic + sensory input + association/analyzation activities + time + repetition

Potential Nervous System Problems

  • Threshold = how much sensory input a receptor can take
    • Can be so small it easily overloads
    • Can be so big that nothing can fill it
    • Signals can be so small it takes a lot of them, or not that many
  • Pathways can be
    • Damaged
    • Not there anymore
    • Pruned
    • Or not pruned – usually at the end of the day some of the new ones we make are pruned
    • Circling back to itself – causing repetitive activity
  • Processors
    • Organizing
    • Prioritizing – every sense comes in at the same volume – causing folding arms and rocking and self soothing

Tips for working with riders on the spectrum

  • Slow Transitions – don’t rush
    • Give the big picture, purpose
    • Be visual, demonstrate
    • One task at a time
    • One person talk at a time
    • Give time to process and think
  • Touch
    • No death grip
    • Don’t grab objects from the rider – make a trade
    • Be aware that helmets often hurt
    • Don’t hug or smack on the back
    • Let them hug the horse, they can take the job
  • Associate
    • Piggyback tasks – make new ones similar to old ones
    • Add sensory experiences to tasks – trail ride, noodles
    • Equine therapy is sensory therapy – they love the movement and watching it
  • You are the role model
    • Your attitude is contagious
    • Often you don’t have to do anything but stay calm
    • Leave the bad day at home
  • Comfort zone
    • Respect it
    • Repetitive movements, favorite toys – if you grab it you’ll lose him – let them and add in others things such as rings, reins, mane
    • Try to bridge it into purposeful activity
  • Accountability
    • Invest the rider in their own experience
    • Despite a difficult diagnosis, the rider is responsible for their action
    • Their goal must be in their mind to do also
    • Connect actions with consequences
    • Bad behavior at this age you do not want continuing into older age
  • Let the horse do the talking
    • Be quiet
    • If they had a bad day, have a calm quiet trail ride
    • Let them take in the senses
  • Manage the environment
    • Control the sensory experience for your rider
    • What do you see, hear, smell, feel
    • Is the arena the same, cluttered,
    • Noisy dogs, kids, volunteers


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 judgment!

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