Therapeutic Center Offers More Than Just A Ride On A Horse

By: Evelyn Jackson

Topics: Animals , Disability access

Judy Sacco dismounts Tigger after her weekly riding lesson. COURTESY PHOTO

“Geyser is furry and he warms you when you are cold. He makes me feel safe. I know he's not going to hurt me,” says 10-year-old Ava from Harwich about the horse she rides at the Emerald Hollow Therapeutic Riding Center in Brewster.

Says Ava's mom Sara, “I adopted Ava when she was 19 months old. She had a long history of inconsistent care — a hard beginning to her life. By the time she was six she had panic attacks when we had transitions, from small ones like leaving home to go to the grocery story to big ones — such as going to school. Her words show how she has been helped by riding Geyser; he has been a traumatic support horse for her.”

Nicole Sheridan, a therapeutic instructor at Emerald Hollow, is certified by PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship). “Ava's ability to control Geyser inspires self-confidence, responsibility and teamwork and has helped her learn to control her emotions and appropriately express herself,” Says Sheridan.

Ava is one of the many people helped by the non-profit Emerald Hollow Therapeutic Riding Center. It was founded in 2015 by Executive Director Nancy Sheridan. The center's mission is to enrich the live of Cape Cod children and adults with special needs by providing individualized equine-assisted activities and therapies.

Jon Ohman calls himself the Autistic Cowboy. Like Ava, riding gives him confidence and increases his ability to identify and work out a solution. Explains Ohman, “Autism is a cognitive diagnosis. Riding enables me to ask for help in a productive way. If I had a challenging horse and I was getting frustrated, I make a plan and change my approach. A horse can be pushy about getting into your personal space. You have to learn how to correct them. Learning boundaries with a horse helps me to learn personal boundaries socially.”

Judy Sacco from South Yarmouth uses a wheelchair for daily activities. After three “semesters” of riding Tigger, Judy says she recognizes the improvements in her physical stamina. “Riding helps my balance, range of motion and my core strength. I continue to feel the benefits after I get off.”

Nicole explains, “As the horse moves, the rider is constantly thrown off balance, requiring that the rider's muscles contract and relax in an attempt to rebalance. This exercise reaches deep muscles not accessible in conventional physical therapy. The three-dimensional rhythmical movement of the horse is similar to the motion of walking, teaching rhythmical patterns to the muscles of the legs and trunk. By placing the rider in different position on the horse we can work different sets of muscles. Stopping and starting the horse, changing speed and changing direction increase these benefits.”

In collaboration with the Hyannis Veterans Affair facility in Hyannis, Emerald Hollow also offers therapy for veterans with PTSD. Don Cameron, the center's board president, was drawn to join because of his professional focus on helping veterans.

“As a result of the horrors of combat, many veterans can be nervous about trying any new experience,” he said. “They may approach a horse timidly in their first session at the center. However, responding to the horse's emotional sensitivity, they will also be hugging the horse after just a few sessions.”

Emerald Hollow's mission cannot be accomplished without the support of the people who volunteer to assist with lessons, horse care and many other crucial tasks. For more information about EHTRC and its programs, or about volunteering, visit www.emeraldhollow.org or call 508-896-0064.