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Happy Trails Riding Academy Provides Horse Therapy for Riders with Disabilities

Sep 23, 2016 11:00AM ● By Jordan Venema

Two of a Kind

October 2016
By Jordan Venema

If dog is man’s best friend, then what should we say about the relationship between man and horse, which is arguably the most significant bond a person can share with another creature outside his own species? It’s no coincidence that man’s oldest known artistic expression – dating back some 30,000 years – includes the sweeping lines of a galloping horse.

While the beauty of that wide-eyed creature has fascinated us, even inspired respect, the domestication of the animal some 6,000 years ago has also been integral to transportation, war, agriculture, entertainment, even the spread of language and ideas.

Horse has given man measurably more than mere companionship, but its companionship might very well be why people are cautioned to never look a gift horse in the mouth: because of the animal’s value.

The accredited non-profit Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) Happy Trails Riding Academy understands that gift, and for many people with special needs and physical disabilities, they’re realizing how much that gift can increase their health and sense of self-worth. 

“We use the horse as a therapy tool,” says Leslie Gardner, Happy Trails’ executive director. “Anything that can be done in a traditional clinical setting can be done on the back of a horse, and it’s been proven through the years that the horse is the only piece of equipment that walks like we do through space.”

When a rider sits on a horse, his or her pelvis rests neutrally. “A horse walks the way we do – all the cadence, the movements, up and back, side to side,” Gardner says. “Just like we do. So we’re able to take the horse’s movement, say, for somebody in a wheelchair who sits off center, and put them right on top, make them square with the world, and we’re retraining muscles and the brain to see the world straight on.” 

While Gardner stresses that Happy Trails trainers are not physical therapists, she also adds, “we’re not just giving pony rides.” The program helps riders with cerebral palsy, attention deficit disorder, sight and hearing impairments, development disabilities and autism, to name a few. 

According to Program Director Lisa Cotta-Meek, who has been with Happy Trails for 20 years, each rider is assed individually to optimize sessions.

“We set up individual goals and objectives in three different areas,” says Cotta-Meek. “What can we do for them physically, cognitively
and psychosocially?”

For instance, if a rider has difficulty in social settings, instructors will work with the rider and his or her volunteer team and peers.

“They learn how to greet each other, ask questions, look you in the eye, say thank you and you’re welcome. And specifically with the horse, it’s getting outside themselves to understand how the horse sees the world, because it’s actually similar,” says Cotta-Meek. “We focus on how the horse accepts their grooming, how they handle the horse, how they read the horse’s body language, and then we hope that they will be able to read human body language.” 

The 25-acre facility, which rests on the border between Visalia and Tulare (“we’re on the Tulare side of the road,” says Gardner), includes a covered arena, barn, outdoor arena and pastures.

Riders participate in a 12-week session with a one-hour ride each week, which costs $30 a ride, though “we ask all our riders to pay what they can,” says Gardner.

“It’s almost like a doctor’s prescription,” Gardner explains, as a doctor must recommend Happy Trails. But if somebody thinks they’d benefit from Happy Trails, Gardner encourages them to visit. “The first thing they should do is call us and talk with the program director. We’d love for them to come out for a tour so we can show what we do.”

Really, the success of Happy Trails has to do with that bond between rider and horse, which Gardner says is huge. Plus, she adds, laughing, “It’s a lot more fun out here than being in a clinical setting.” It’s allowing riders to hold the reins, which is a lot like putting their therapy in their own hands, and boosting their sense of self-confidence.

2773 E. Oakdale Ave., Tulare 

(559) 688-8685 •

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