Riding Program Feeds Mental, Physical, Emotional, Social Needs
For nearly 20 years, Solano County residents of all ages have enjoyed the unique health benefits that come from riding a horse, thanks to Horseplay Therapeutic Riding Center of Vacaville. “Therapeutic riding uses equine-assisted activities to improve the mental, physical, emotional and social well-being of people with disabilities,” explains Dave Rybicki, president of the nonprofit organization.
The local program, which is a member of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl., formerly NARHA), is one of 800 member centers worldwide dedicated to improving lives through horsemanship.
“A disability does not have to keep a person from riding horses,” Dave says. “In fact, because the rhythmical motion of a horse moves the rider’s body in a manner similar to a human gait, riders with physical disabilities often show improvement in flexibility, balance and muscle strength. In addition to the therapeutic benefits, horseback riding also provides social and recreational opportunities for individuals with disabilities.”
For Stephen Kreisman, 34, of Fairfield, diagnosed with borderline autism, weekly riding sessions have been his No. 1 activity since age 15. “Sports didn’t interest him and he had a hard time focusing in school,” says mom Carol Kreisman. “We heard about Horseplay and Stephen agreed to try it. When Stephen first got on a horse, it was amazing,” she remembers. “When you have a mental disability, everyone is telling you what to do. On horseback, he felt the power of being ‘in control’ of the horse.”
Each rider begins the program accompanied by a team of three volunteers. One leads the horse and a spotter walks along each side of the horse to ensure the rider’s safety. Riders are given tasks to complete depending on their condition and goals. Stephen was asked to steer the horse through three patterns and he did it with ease.
“His high school teachers couldn’t believe he could follow directions, but the horse totally captivated him,” Carol says. “Riding is primary to his life now. He will give up anything for Horseplay.”
Through the years, Stephen has moved from being a “general rider” needing a team of three volunteers to keep him safe, to what the organization calls an “independent rider,” with the skill to ride alone in the arena. He has participated in Horseplay horse shows and has done drill team demonstrations with another rider.
Stephen’s success is one of many logged by Horseplay riders over the years.
“Kids live for this program,” says Carol, who long ago joined the organization’s board of directors. She has seen parents’ tears of joy when their child responds to a horse.
Some riders have stayed with the program for seven or eight years, Dave says. He can’t remember anyone staying less than one or two years. Therapeutic riding can help those with autism, brain injuries, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, learning disabilities and spinal cord injuries, to name a few.
“We have riders not strong enough to sit on a horse for 45 minutes,” Dave says. “When they get tired, we have them lie down on the horse for a while, and week by week their strength increases.”
The program currently has six horses, carefully chosen for their good manners and quiet nature to ensure an enjoyable and safe experience. Maintaining six horses is incredibly expensive, Dave says, and the $35 cost of each ride only partially pays for the program’s upkeep. The organization relies heavily on financial donations and volunteers are always needed. Volunteers must be age 12 and older, and participate in a free training session before assisting riders.
Horseplay accepts riders age 4 and older and they must have medical clearance from a doctor. The only restriction is a weight limit of 200 pounds for the safety of the horse and the side walkers. Dave urges anyone interested in the program to come out and watch a 45 minute session. The program operates at Black Tie Arabian Ranch just off Highway 80 in Dixon.
For the first time ever, Horseplay doesn’t have a waiting list. For further details, visit www.horseplayriding.org.