by Diane Dobry and Julia Puciato

Since 1995, the Equine program at SUNY Cobleskill has been offering therapeutic horseback riding courses that allow college students to learn to use horses to work with adults and children with and without disabilities.  Patti Whelihan, M.S.Ed. and certified instructor with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), who is also a NYS Permanent Certified Special Education teacher, teaches the related 100- to 400-level courses in Equine Assisted Activities.

Recently, to meet the growing needs in the field of equine-assisted therapy, the College created a joint equine-assisted therapy minor that combines coursework from both the Equine and Early Childhood programs.  By including coursework from the Early Childhood program, students are given a solid background for assisting in therapeutic riding and other equine-assisted therapy programs.

“This program is unique to SUNY Cobleskill. No other college in the SUNY system has a major in this,” said Ray Whelihan, Patti’s husband who is a faculty member in the Equine Program.  “Other colleges have coursework in therapeutic riding, but this is a unique program that goes from levels 100 to 400.”

The 100-level course (ANSC 168) brings college students together with pre-school aged children with and without mental or physical disabilities—such as autism, motor and language delays or general developmental delays. Twice a week for eight weeks, through this integrated therapeutic riding experience, therapists from Whispering Pines pre-school use a horse as a natural therapeutic modality to improve motor skill development in a way that motivates the children within the scope of each child’s Individual Educational Plan (IEP).  Pre-school children from the daycare program on campus are also included in this course.

College students in the 200-level course (ANSC 268), Rider Instruction, learn, with the support and supervision of Patty Whelihan, to create lesson plans, train and maintain training of sport riding horses in order to teach a variety of community riders who may or may not have disabilities.  As they move into the 300-level course (ANSC 368), the students are given more independence as they instruct members of the community, under the supervision of their professor, with a combination of therapeutic riding and sport horse riding. The College students to learn to tailor instruction to the special needs of the individual.  At the 400 level (ANSC 468), college students are offered even more independence in teaching as they are mentored for certification requirements necessary to become a PATH instructor.

“The goal of the program is to expose and then develop independent rider instructor skills to college students who are seeking certification in the area of Therapeutic Riding,” Patty Whelihan said.  “We also give students information on other career options such as language and motor therapy, and special education options, if they seek to further their education. “

The children may only be doing activities around the horse, such as:  grooming the horse, cleaning a stall, or sweeping an aisle way.  “The horse is a motivator for them to express themselves,” said Ray Whelihan.  “It is very engaging for the students.”

Patty added, “The horse is used as a modality to increase interaction with peers and adults in a generalized setting.  When you use a tool that is motivating, it is possible to set up scenarios in which the client can work off his or her strengths to increase endurance in the areas that they need assistance with.”

This is especially important to parents who want their children to learn awareness and acceptance of others, says parent Siri Young, whose children were enrolled in the program in 2013 and are not receiving any type of therapy.  In addition, she says that her children, in working with College students in the class, have been helped in their willingness to take direction and to understand safety and responsibility. “They do so much more than I ever imagined,” Young said.

Christina Arvidson, A SUNY Cobleskill student and parent whose daughter Annie is benefiting from the program, shared the success of using the horse as a therapeutic tool.

“It is like a classroom on a horse,” she says. The use of equine techniques has helped to discipline and focus her daughter Annie in a way that other programs could not. Annie, age four, was diagnosed with apraxia of speech at age two. Arvidson has struggled to find an interest for her daughter in an area that will encourage her speech development. This is what equine therapy has done.

“She has a very special connection with animals,” she said. It is a confidence building journey that gains her interest and has become something she can be proud of.  She has become excited about using words and identifying with the subject, she added. It is also a way for mother and daughter to connect when they ride together in private lessons.

Equine photo 2The methods used on the horse develop skills to allow Annie to calm her body movement and focus on the task at hand. They help teach individuals to overcome challenges.  “They are taught awareness of how what they do affects the horse,” Arvidson explained. “They also get to do things on the horse like balance and coordination.”

“One of the most rewarding feelings is hearing a child speak for the first time while riding on the back of the horse!” Patty Whelihan added.

Horses are chosen based on a quiet, kind, and tolerant temperament along with the needs of the individuals in the program.  “They are trained for the exercises being done in the class including having a lead walker and two side walkers beside them,” Patti Whelihan said.  “They have to like children and accept voice commands with smooth reactions. For example, they have to be used to a variety of different noises and movement, as well as the use of toys like rings and balls, and remain quiet and pleasant.”

The college students learn how to keep horses happy, engaged and focused on their job and to train the horses to accept the toys being used for therapeutic exercises. In addition, they have to be able to maintain a safe lesson and pay attention to what is going on in the ring as well as the surrounding environment.

“In the class, the college students are being taught not just about definitions of special education, but true interactions with children with and without disabilities,” Whelihan said.

And finally, they learn how to present themselves appropriately with parents to communicate what was done during the session.

Rachel Baldwin, a SUNY Cobleskill student from Schoharie, NY, who is taking the therapeutic riding course, chose to enroll in the minor in her sophomore year. With a goal of being involved with therapeutic riding work, she expects to become PATH certified and has high hopes for her career.

Another student, Samantha Sykes, said, “I didn’t consider being a therapeutic riding instructor until this class opened me up to doing it.”