Therapeutic horse class is dream come true

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The rhythm in a horse’s gait is an exact match to a human’s walk – that’s why West Virginia University is offering a course this fall that will teach students how to use horses as therapy to help people with disabilities.
The course, Introduction to Therapeutic Horsemanship, will be offered through theWest Virginia University Davis College of Agriculture, Forestry and Consumer Sciences and is open to students of any major without prerequisites.
Carol Petitto, an adjunct instructor of resource management, will teach the course, half of which will take place at West Virginia University and the other half at her farm off campus.
“Horse therapy can be incredibly helpful for someone who can’t walk,” said Petitto, who will open her own horse therapy center this fall in conjunction with the class being offered.
Unique therapy. “A person with disabilities will receive therapy from a horse’s gait that he can’t get from any other therapy source because when you’re riding a horse, you’re using the same muscles.”
In addition to muscle strength, the rhythmic motion of horse riding often helps riders with physical disabilities to improve in flexibility and balance.
Horse therapy is used for persons with a variety of disabilities including: muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, autism, visual impairment, emotional disabilities, brain injuries, deafness and amputations.
Petitto said for individuals with special needs, equine-assisted activities have improved muscle tone, posture, balance, coordination, motor development and total well being, and as an added bonus, attitude.
Motivated. “Kids or adults who are not motivated to do physical therapy will be motivated and are more willing to learn and listen when you use a horse for therapy,” said Petitto.
The unique bond formed between a rider and a horse can lead to increased confidence, patience and self-esteem in people with mental or emotional disabilities, she added.
A class offered for the first time this summer, called Natural Horsemanship, incorporated the use of some of the training techniques that will be applied this fall.
Petitto said the training techniques are designed to desensitize the horses to motion and are fun for the trainer and the horse.
“We train the horses with games. Playing basketball and baseball while on the horses are a few of the things we will do,” said Petitto.
Another exercise will include riding the horses in between aquatic toys, called fun noodles, hanging from a bar.
“This all helps to desensitize the horses,” said Petitto.
“When you’re working with children and adults with disabilities, you can’t make them get on a horse and sit perfectly still. So, the horses need to get used to the feeling of movement and become desensitized to it.”
Stepping Stones. In opening her therapy center, Petitto has contracted with Stepping Stones in Morgantown, a recreational facility for people with disabilities. The class’ therapy participants will be from Stepping Stones.
Although a small fee will be charged, the financial aspect of the therapy center will be handled through Stepping Stones, according to Petitto, who added that she hopes to be able to offer a scholarship program to people with disabilities who cannot pay.
This type of therapeutic riding began in Europe in the early 1950s, according to the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, Inc., which was founded to promote the use of therapeutic riding in the United States and Canada.
Petitto is currently in the process of becoming a registered instructor with North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.
Inspiring. “I saw a man with multiple sclerosis, who was wheelchair bound, start horse therapy. Now he is able to walk using a cane and is driving a car,” she added.
“The fact that this therapy is so useful to so many people is inspiring. I almost cry every time I’m there.”
The class will not likely be offered for the spring semester during the 2007-2008 school year because of inclement weather. Petitto is in the process of building an indoor arena, which is slated to be completed sometime in 2008.
For the fall class, Petitto said some basics will be covered in the classroom, such as: explanations of therapeutic riding; how to train a therapeutic horse; the structure of the business side of therapeutic training; and a general overview of the types of disabilities the students may encounter.
Currently, there are 23 students registered for the fall class, which has a maximum enrollment of 50.
Dream. “This has been a dream of mine for a long time. To be able to combine teaching, my love of horses and helping people with disabilities in this way, is a wonderful thing,” Petitto said.

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