What To Do: Responding to Challenging Behaviours In Your Adaptive Riding Lesson

For the first article of the new year, I’m excited to have another guest post by Esther Schlegel! Esther is an Occupational Therapist (OT) from Germany who has her own OT practice that includes Adaptive Riding and Hippotherapy, teaches college, and offers clinics, consultations and webinars. She has an active Facebook group where she regularly discusses topics based on community vote, which was the way we selected the topic for this post: Responding to Challenging Behaviours In Your Adaptive Riding Lessons. Thank you so much for writing this article, Esther!

Are you one of the people who voted for the topic of this post?

I’m really excited to get to write another article for Cindy´s great Lessons in TR blog, especially since the members of our Facebook group for Adaptive/Therapeutic Riding Instructors have decided on this.

Before we go deeper into the topic, we need to remember that Adaptive Riding lessons are not the place to modify challenging behaviours. That is done by professional specialists in therapeutic settings. As Adaptive Riding Instructors our responsibility is to provide a safe, fun and progressive riding lesson, which is tailored to the needs of the individual rider. We all know that ensuring safety requires lots of things (like proper training of staff, volunteers and horses, safe and well-fitted equipment, a safe arena set up etc.) and it also covers safe behaviour from everyone involved, as simple as that may sound. The reason I am saying it like this is the fact that if a person shows aggressive behaviours against themselves and/or other people or animals we can´t provide a safe lesson and therefore Adaptive Riding is not a suitable activity for this individual.

But let´s look at some other challenging behaviours that we might see in some of our riders and ways in which we can address them.

I would describe behaviour as the way a person acts and interacts in a particular situation. I’m sure you are already thinking of some of your riders who show certain behaviours. Maybe very pleasant ones, maybe some challenging ones. And maybe you have been wondering why in the world this person does that. If that’s the case, you are on the right track. Every behaviour has a cause. If we can gain a better understanding of what it is that causes certain behaviours in our riders, we might be able to adapt the setting to their needs and help them enjoy their lesson more.

When it comes to understanding certain behaviours, it is important to get a holistic picture of the person you are working with. Talk to your rider, the parents or caregivers, get in touch with their therapists. Is this a new behaviour that this rider is showing? Is the rider showing this behaviour in other settings as well? Is someone else already addressing this behaviour and if so, how are they doing this? Challenging behaviours can have so many reasons, like excitement, anxiety, problems with sensory processing, pain, boredom, listlessness… Here are some thoughts that I put into consideration when I have a rider who shows inappropriate behaviours.

Is your rider super-excited?

Let’s imagine that you just found out that you won the lottery. How would that make you feel and how would you behave? I can say for myself that I would not just say “that is great news” in a nice and calm voice, but that I would probably be jumping around the house, clapping my hands and singing a song as loud as I can. If you didn’t know that I had just received the news to have won the lottery, you might think that I am behaving inappropriately, right? Now, once you found out about my luckiness, I´m sure you would start to understand why I am acting like this. I think some of our riders are in a similar spot. Riding their horse might be the highlight of their week, they have been excited for this all week. Now is finally the day and they might have a hard time to keep that excitement to themselves, which may result in behaviours that are inappropriate around horses, like clapping, loud and high pitch noises. If the behaviours that your rider is showing are caused by their excitement, it might just be a good idea to let them arrive earlier, give them the opportunity to express those feelings in a safe manner and let them know that you are happy to see them as well. How wonderful that you are providing the activity that makes them so excited! If we can offer an opportunity to express the excitement our rider is experiencing, it gives them a sense of acceptance and it is usually easier to tune the behaviours down a bit afterwards. Help your rider understand that you are very happy they enjoy their riding lesson so much, but that their horse can’t tolerate loud noises etc. and help them come up with something that they can express their excitement to their horse in a different way. For example, petting the horse’s neck.

Is your rider feeling anxious?

Anxiety can be caused by many factors. Try to think very global and ask yourself if there has been a change on the property or if you have changed something in the lesson or in the lesson set up that might have caused anxiety in my rider. Try to think of all areas, from the time your rider arrives to the time your rider leaves. Consider things like a different helmet and think of possible changes in your lesson. Have you worked with a different horse, different equipment, different volunteer etc.? Have you made a progression in your lesson, for example have you asked the leader to unclip the horse from the lead line, or have you introduced the trot? Was there a situation that may have scared the rider, for example a horse that spooked?

If you can think of some changes that have been made on the property or in your lesson, address them. Ask your rider and their parent/caregiver if he/she feels ok about this or if there are any worries that you should talk about. Sometimes it might be enough to assure the rider of a change, for example if a new volunteer is leading the rider. Make sure to let them know that the volunteer has the same training as the previous one they worked with and provide the opportunity for them to chat a bit outside of the lesson, so the rider can gain trust in their new leader. Other times you might have to make some changes, for example when your rider feels anxious about trotting. It might be a good idea to go back to a fast walk for a while or to incorporate an Equicizer when re-introducing the trot. Ask your rider about the tasks he/she feels comfortable with. Let them know what you have planned, that you are confident that they can perform this task, but that it can always be altered to make sure they feel comfortable and enjoy their lesson.

Is your rider challenged with the processing of sensory information?

Maybe your rider is not showing signs of anxiety but refuses to grab the reins, doesn’t want to pet the horse, has a hard time when you put the helmet on their head or doesn’t appear to listen when you talk to them. A lot of people are challenged with the processing of sensory information and as a result might show inappropriate behaviour. In some cases, we should just accept that a certain sensation, for example that the horse’s coat feels uncomfortable and not push the rider to touch the horse. I am sure that the rider will enjoy their lesson just as much and if we want to make sure that the rider shows appreciation to the horse, we can ask them to tell or sign to the horse thank you. In other situations, the refusal to touch certain materials can limit the rider’s level of participation, for example if the rider refuses to grab the reins, because the rubber feels very uncomfortable. In such a case it might be helpful to offer the rider different materials of reins, like leather, cotton, nylon etc. and ask them what they feel comfortable with. Changing the material or offering gloves may help to overcome this challenge and therefore will give the rider a greater opportunity to participate in the lesson. Riders who have a hard time to process auditory information might benefit from a individual lesson rather than a group lesson and can be supported by visual schedule (if you are interested in a multisensory teaching approach, read my blog post about it here.

Is your rider experiencing pain or discomfort?

Especially for people who have a small active vocabulary it might be a challenge to communicate that they are experiencing discomfort. Keep in mind that everybody’s perception of a comfortable temperature differs, and this can also be a reason why a rider shows inappropriate behaviours. Take sidewalkers into consideration. It might be a good thing to check how much pressure the sidewalker is applying. If the rider is supported by two sidewalkers, ensure that they both apply even pressure on both sides. Also keep the equipment that you are using in mind. For instance, a sheepskin seat cover might be more comfortable to some riders than a solid leather seat.

Is your rider bored?

Now let’s say you have already considered all the thoughts we collected so far, your rider feels comfortable and safe, but could he/she be bored? I think especially in group lessons it can be a challenge to fit the lesson content to each individual involved. And even if that is not the problem, maybe there are times during which you practice a new skill with one rider after the other. This standing time is a great opportunity to rest or it might cause the rider to get bored. If you think that the cause of the challenging behaviour that your rider is showing is boredom, try to give them an extra challenge. This could be a little quiz time during the standing times, it can be a responsibility that they get to have, or you could ask them of what it is that they would like to do.

Does your rider not like to ride horses?

As surprising as this may be for us horse crazy people, there might be riders who don’t really want to be part of our program. I have seen it a few times that parents put their kids into an Adaptive Riding program even though the child has little to no interest in it. I don’t want to speculate about the reasons that parents may have for that, but I feel sorry for everyone who is forced to do something in their free time that they do not enjoy at all. It might be a good idea to suggest for the rider to take a break from lessons and try out other activities. Maybe they have way more fun being part of a soccer team or they rather be part of an art project.

Understanding behaviours can be a real challenge. I hope that these considerations can be of use for you if inappropriate behaviours ever become a problem in your lesson. I believe that if we take the time to assess every aspect, we can make changes that help our riders and everyone else involved enjoy their lesson to the fullest.

About the Author

My name is Esther Schlegel. I´m an Occupational Therapist from Germany who specialized in the field of Adaptive  (Therapeutic) Riding and Hippotherapy. I have gained knowledge and experience by living, studying and working in a variety of countries including Germany, The Netherlands, USA and Canada. In Germany I operate my own Occupational Therapy practice with an emphasis on Hippotherapy and Adaptive (Therapeutic) Riding which I run with lots of heart and competence. Besides treating clients, I enjoy teaching Occupational Therapy students at their college as well as offering clinics and webinars regarding various topics related to Occupational Therapy, Hippotherapy and Adaptive (Therapeutic) Riding. I live in Germany for most of the year but spend my summers in Canada, where I offer clinics and consultation services to Adaptive (Therapeutic) Riding Centers.

If you are seeking a way to expand your knowledge as Adaptive Riding Instructor I would love to invite you to my summer clinics in Dawson Creek, BC, Canada. For more information, please follow the link to my website: https://aufsteiger-therapeutische-konz.jimdo.com/english/clinics/

Travelling doesn´t fit your schedule at this time? Check out my ATR Webinar “In case you´re not a doctor” that you can enjoy from the comfort of your home: https://aufsteiger-therapeutische-konz.jimdo.com/english/atr-webinar/

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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!

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