Developing Empathy As An Adaptive or Therapeutic Riding Instructor

Developing empathy as an instructor of adaptive or therapeutic horseback riding is something that I have been thinking a lot about lately as I have come across some interesting resources I want to share. This is not a comprehensive list, but hopefully is a good place for you to start. I’d love for you to add your thoughts in the comments!

What Is Empathy

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another”. It is different from sympathy, which is a feeling of sorrow or pity for another person, and it is different from compassion, which is an understanding of another’s pain with the desire to somehow alleviate it. Empathy is important because it helps us read and imagine how others are feeling so we can appropriately respond to situations and make decisions, it helps build social connections, helps you regulate your emotions, and motivates you to help others more.

However, empathy does have a dark side that we need to be aware of. Taken to the extreme, empathy can cause someone to be so overcome with emotion that they are less likely to help others, it can make someone have such strong feeling for a particular group that they have hate and aggression toward other groups, and it can cause someone to read another person so well that they are able to manipulate and deceive the other person. Some arguments against empathy claim that empathy predisposes you to view the empathized as the other, that you can’t ever fully understand an other person’s experience, and that thinking you can is dangerous because it leads to people making decisions for others when they have no right to which perpetuates power imbalances.

But what I’m talking about here is not the ability to completely know the perspective of another human and make all their decisions for them, nor generalized empathy tips about working with people with disabilities – you can find that elsewhere, such as through PATH Intl’s Instructor Training or the ADA’s Empathy not Sympathy Module. What I am talking about is empathy as the understanding of and sensitivity to the experience of the other – specifically, of someone with a disability during a horseback riding or horsemanship lesson – so that you can better connect with your rider, better teach them, better make decisions about your lessons ahead of time and in the moment, and so that they can better learn what you are teaching them.

Empathy helps us be better teachers! I love this quote about it:

“We use Applied Behavior Analysis, pedagogy, curriculum, and research to learn how to teach, but even this is not enough.  If it were, robots would have our jobs.  This makes empathy even more important.  Our students do not simply take information and process it.  It needs to be given to them, by someone who they can trust.  It needs to be repetitively practiced with a patient guide until it becomes a task requiring little thought to perform. … It also helps to remember…[that] without having autism, complete empathy will be impossible.  But sincere attempts at empathy allows people to get closer to one another, and this closeness fosters trust.  Trust begets learning.” (Catapult Learning)

Lastly, I’m talking about empathy as something that you can intentionally develop, not as an emotion that spontaneously arises. So, let’s talk about how to develop empathy as an adaptive or therapeutic riding instructor!

Ideas For Developing Empathy

Personal Experience

Probably the greatest empathy is created by going through it yourself. Although each person’s experience is different, if you have or have had a disability of some sort then you will greater understand the experience of your riders in the same situations – and if you have a child with disabilities you will greater understand the experience of the parents and caregivers of your riders. Obviously you can’t exactly cultivate this situation in your life, it’s circumstantial, but I wanted to mention it.

Shared Experience

Sharing life with someone with a disability – seeing them daily, hearing their experiences, figuring out and processing life with them – will create deep empathy. Make it a point in your daily like to “build equitable human relationships with folks with differing abilities and disabilities” (Abreu). This could be with a family member, friend, your students, or someone you see weekly at the supermarket. The point is, as one author puts it, “I learned less from soaking my hands in ice water [to know what arthritis might feel like] than from talking to my mom. She has chronic arthritis, and it’s through talking with her that I’ve learned more about the day-to-day adaptations one has to make in the context of an otherwise rich, full life.” (Abreu)

One idea is to seek to be more than just your students’ riding instructor, but be their friend. Take time before and after their lesson to connect with them and their family, and if the opportunity presents itself become a part of their life outside of the barn: go to birthday parties, graduations, and so on.

Another idea is to work a disabilities support services job – be a caregiver, a behavior support services provider, a staff in a supported living home, or so on. Quite a few people I used to work with had previously worked at a local disabilities support service and I could tell their understanding from doing life with people with disabilities was so much greater due to it.

Similar Experience

This is when you have a similar life experience to someone with disabilities that is not exactly the same but still brings you closer to understanding and being sensitive to their experience. For example, when I went on walks pushing my sleeping baby around in a stroller I became more aware of horrible ramps and curbs and accessibility features, as well as how loud and noisy and distracting the world can be – I developed much more awareness and empathy for people in wheelchairs and people who have sensory sensitivities to noise.

This includes emotions – one article points out that we feel similar emotions to others, just our response is different: “How does it feel inside when I feel the same emotion this person feels?  We may not have acted the same way if the tables were turned, but many times, these same emotions cause us to want to act that way.  I may not need to cover my ears every time a siren goes off, but I would like to.  I know very well the frustrations of learning a new skill. Why wouldn’t someone else be frustrated? Reactions may be different, but our capacity for emotions is similar.” (Catapult LearningSo, it can be helpful to reflect on how your emotions are similar to someone else’s – such as remembering feelings of fear when you first started riding, or when you had difficulty learning a new skill like skiing.


A simulation is when you “try on” the constraints or adaptations of a disability so that you can understand what having that constraint may feel like in order to better empathize and choose your actions. For example, moving through the barn in a wheelchair to learn what it feels like to experience the barn in that way.

Side Note: It’s important to understand that this is experiencing the constraint or adaptation, not the disability itself. There is no way to fully experience what it is like to live with a disability daily, with all the related coping mechanisms, little adaptations, political and social factors, and long-term situations. For this reason there is debate about whether or not it’s helpful or appropriate to simulate disabilities. Arguments against simulations include: that simulations create pity not empathy;  that “momentarily experiencing the challenges a disability may create could cause participants to underestimate the true capabilities of persons with disabilities” (1); and that it causes people to assume they know enough about what it’s like to have the disability to make decisions for the people group instead of including the people themselves in the decision. For example, a city planning committee does a disability simulation in which they take on fake physical disabilities and experience the city’s buildings and sidewalks, and from that assume they know how to make the best city planning decisions for people with disabilities – when instead they should involve people with disabilities in the planning process. I personally think that if you are aware of these potential negative outcomes and avoid them by having the goal of seeking awareness (not knowing exactly what it’s like) so that you can better empathize and choose your actions and work with your rider (not make all the decisions for them), then simulations are helpful for adaptive and therapeutic riding instructors. I have found this so in my life!

The two most helpful simulations I’ve seen and experiences related to adaptive or therapeutic riding instruction are:

  • Being mounted and dismounted both croup and crest (and from a wheelchair) by someone else with full assistance, in which you give minimal help or simulate having poor core strength, tight inner leg muscles, no use of lower legs, etc.  – afterward you will understand how scary dis/mounting can be and you’ll be much more empathetic when leading someone through it!
  • Mock Lessons in which you are the rider and simulate a disability constraint or adaptation with leader and sidewalkers, such as weak lower legs, one weak side of the body, no use of one arm, etc. – afterward you will understand how different (and difficult) it is to ride with assistance with the sidewalkers’ arms over your legs, how one sidewalker pushing on your leg more than the sidewalker on the other side can throw off your position and balance, and therefore how the sidewalkers have such a huge impact on one’s success, and so on.

Books, Memoirs, Documentaries

Reading about someone’s experience is a great way to expand your awareness and empathy. Stories are an amazing form of teaching and learning that bring the reader in an other person’s experience. Here are some recommendations:

  • A Stolen Life by Jaycee Lee Dugard – about her 18 year abduction, escape and life after which included therapy using equines. She is going to be this year’s (2019) PATH Intl. Conference and Annual Meeting Keynote Luncheon Speaker, which is how I found out about this book, which partially inspired this post. (Note the book includes only a little about her equine-assisted-therapy, and in this way gives the reader perspective on how coming to EAAT sessions is just one tiny part of someone’s whole life, yet can have a huge impact).
  • My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor – about her experience as a 37 year old Harvard-trained brain scientist who had a stroke and her recovery.
  • Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon – about a prematurely born baby and her family’s incredible experience (she also did EAAT, but I can’t remember if talk about it in the book – it’s another book that gives you insight into how much goes on behind the scenes that you won’t know about as an instructor).
  • Here is a good list of 16+ books on disability by people with disabilities, by Carly Findlay, and her website is full of more book review
  • Limitless: Breaking the bounds of disability – a documentary series that is “all conceived of, filmed and edited by middle and high school students, to explore empathy, common feelings of difference and how stories help us walk in another person’s shoes”
  • There’s so many more, please add more to this list in the comments!

Personal Documentation

These less formal sources of personal experience include blogs, Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, and other social media accounts. These are perhaps and even more raw and unedited way of entering into an other person’s experience. Here are some recommendations:


So there you have it, some ideas about how to cultivate empathy toward your riders with disabilities (and their parents and caregivers) in your life. I hope that in reading this post you travel down as many bunny trails as I did in writing it!

To review, for the adaptive or therapeutic riding instructor, ideally empathy leads to:

  • sensitivity and understanding of the experience of a person with disabilities
  • adjusting your behavior to allow more positive interactions with your riders with disabilities
  • better connecting with your riders
  • creating better lesson plans
  • better instruction and decisions made in the moment
  • your students can better learn what you are teaching them

A few things to remember:

  • everyone’s situation is unique and not necessarily negative (see Amethyst Schraber’s “The Joy of Stimming“)
  • having empathy does not mean you know exactly what it’s like
  • don’t assume you can make decisions for the person, rather let the person make their own decisions or work together to figure it out (although on horseback you will have to make a lot of decisions relating to horses for them), being guided by their personal experience shared with you

Please share in the comments your thoughts on developing empathy for your 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! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *