Horses are not just for riding, display or racing. They serve another useful purpose for people who care for them – tending to human ills and disabilities. To observe this in action, visit Therapeutic Riding of Tucson (TROT for short) on its 18-acre ranch in the scenic outskirts of Tucson.
Definitive medical studies may be lacking – you don’t necessarily abandon your doctor or psychiatrist – but TROT program director Sandy Webster and her enthusiastic horse-loving staff of volunteers can cite any number of examples of suffering folk, young and old, who have benefited from closeness to one of man’s best friends in the animal kingdom.
Ancient Greeks and Romans, aware of so much, understood horse therapy, which has been practiced over the centuries, reaching a broad acceptance today. Director Webster, who was once a successful jockey in Canada, matches horse with rider. They must suit each other, a compatibility of species. It isn’t always easy to find a horse prepared to be kind and patient with a human being. That may take some searching. But a glance at the relaxed, comely horses at the ranch suggest the right ones have been found.
The human participant, in turn, may be apprehensive about getting on a horse. The ranch makes it as easy as possible. First, the horse must fit the size of the rider, large or small as the case may be. If there’s trouble walking, he or she is hoisted by a swing from a wheelchair on to the horse. With one volunteer at the saddle and another at the reins, off they go at a moderate gait. The swaying movement of the horse mimics that of the human, reinforcing balance, strength, mobility. A full-fledged cowboy or girl may not emerge, but it’s a start.
The horse can also mediate between participant and a world that seems overwhelming, even threatening. An eleven-year old autistic boy at the ranch would not speak to people, though he whispered to his horse. The horse, to be sure, respected his confidence, and in time the boy summoned the courage to speak to humans as well.
You name the ailment and TROT has a remedy – mental retardation, emotional disabilities, even cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis. Horses may not cure, but they are at least a palliative. Sandy Webster says horse therapy reduced the suicide rate in Singapore, where she once worked as a therapist.
The well can also benefit. Branching out, TROT now provides training in tracking and rescue operations for half a dozen veterans. The opportunities for horse and human seem boundless.