My exposure to horses has been embarrassingly limited: I have watched my daughter comb through the shimmery lavender purple and violet nylon mane of her Little Pony toy, Twilight Sparkle, but that’s about the extent of it. Never did I take the time to consider how horses enrich peoples’ lives. Ashley Pujol, the director of Tri-State, shared her experiences and the work of the Center with vibrancy and passion.
Tri-State works primarily to transform the lives of those with physical, emotional and/or mental health needs, but does work with all abilities. This might include people on the autism spectrum, with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, anxiety, depression and ADHD.
As a transition to delving into how Tri-State operates locally, I offer some significant findings about equine therapy.
Horses offer a physical connection (riding, brushing, patting) for those with autism who often have difficulty communicating feelings and making eye contact.
Horses can foster language skills because they allow the rider to be in charge and give directions without any threat of judgment.
Horses foster healthier bodies: muscular strength, balance, co-ordination. For example, riders with multiple sclerosis find that sitting on the horse can stretch hip joints and reduce pain and spasticity in leg muscles. Furthermore, the movement of the rider’s hips can increase limberness and muscle tone in the legs.
Horses mirror people and react authentically to emotional states. For example, if a person seems tense, a horse might pin back its ears and bare its teeth. Horses are non-judgmental and will accept anyone for who they are. If someone approaches and has a genuine sense of security/calmness, the horse will remain calm and express its interest in the person, maybe lightly nudging them to engage or licking their hand.
Horses don’t rely on vocalization because they are prey animals; sound would betray their location. Instead, they rely upon a sophisticated silent method of communication.
Horses provide emotional comfort and opportunities for growth and responsibilities, not only from riding but also from their basic needs for grooming and care. Horsemanship extends far beyond a mere rental for a recreational ride.
Tri-State, with its knowledge of equine therapy, takes this science and turns it into a positive, proactive learning and joyful experience for those ages 3-70. Ashley is infectiously passionate about her field. Having grown up as an army brat, she lived in over 10 places during childhood; her horse, Sandy, a dark gold Palomino, was the one friend she knew would always be with her. Sandy offered constancy and loyalty. When feeling left out of the crowd, figuring out who she was or adjusting to a new residency, Ashley always had Sandy. Significantly, when Ashley spoke about her own history, she expressed an uncanny wisdom about how horses could reach people of all ages. Clearly not a young enthusiast with the potential to burn out, Ashley is a lifer. If you are seeking advice from an empathetic professional with extensive experience, she is the one.
Initially, touring TriState felt akin to visiting a preschool. Photos of each horse line the wall. These horses, cleverly coined, “Reinbow” Riders, have an assigned color to allow riders to practice their colors. Lottie is red, Prim is teal, Farley is orange, LB is white, Chappy is pink, Buddy is green and Poppy is purple. In the grooming area, buckets with matching combs allow for color matching. While to an untrained observer these small choices might seem coincidental, each connects to a larger learning plan. And also, the colors add fun!
Beyond the entry, the indoor arena offers various “toys” that reinforce motor skills, comprehension and coordination. Pool noodles, barrels, basketball hoops, a fishing pole and ring toss offer all sorts of challenges. The toys and games seem reflective of a small, involved imaginative staff.
With the weather cold, dank and in the low thirties, Ashley did not take me on a tour of the sensory trails, which include obstacles meant to engage the senses. For example, one trail emphasizes sound with large wind chimes and a wooden bridge to highlight the horses clip clops. There is a colorful pool-noodle forest that resembles a car wash so riders can see colors and feel the texture as they ride through. Visitors can see these trails, as well as two other larger indoor arenas that are used for horse shows, rodeos, dog shows, monster truck shows and other community events.
The staff all seems to have a genuine commitment and belief in promoting positive outcomes. Staff member Caroline Duncan explained, “People come in and they can’t walk or they are not looked at like a normal person ...[but here] they can be anyone they want to be.”
Talking of one breakthrough experience, Ashley’s eyes started to well up with tears. She was riding on a horse supporting a young girl with severe disabilities who lacked the strength and coordination to sit on her own. Ashley hugged this little girl, and the girl squeezed her hand, which was the most communication she had made in months. Ashley went on to recount how a low functioning male in his ’30s blurted out a horse’s name; it was the only time he had ever spoken.
While these experiences have been game changers, every small task/activity at Tri-State is directed toward growth. In grooming, learners need to differentiate between bristle sizes and textures. They must practice making various shapes and stroking at various angles. Some brushes need to be moved in a circular motion, while others require horizontal strokes, and others need to be bushed softly up and down. Furthermore, each brush is suited to a specific part of the horse.
To an outsider, the amount of thought put into a successful therapy program boggles the mind. Incontestable, Tri-State has many followers impressed by its transformative work. In addition to the staff, a strong core of volunteers helps with the care of the horses and lessons and work on grants. Volunteers are accepted whether experienced or not. Training is available and can range from cleaning stalls to handling horses.
Donors provide horses, sponsor riders, pass along saddles and give generously. It is through this support that Tri -State is able to offer a low- to no- cost program that can involve optional payments and scholarships.
Currently, it would be an understatement to say we are at a time when much seems discouraging. Thanks to Tri-State, I have a reason to smile. A visit lifts the spirits and stretches the imagination. Never again, when I see a tiny plastic Little Pony, will I think a horse’s engaging quality is limited to a young child’s toy. For a feel-great experience, visit Tri-State. See the magic.
by Robin Howe