Episode 3- The Horse Whisperers

Dr Lisa Interligi and Kristine Christopoulos chat with Edwina and Lynzi from Riding for the Disabled (RDA) about the benefits of riding horses both as therapy and recreation for children with a range disabilities.

Speaker 1:          Welcome to Loop Me In, the podcast community for parents and carers on raising children with disabilities. Join presenters, Dr. Lisa Interligi and Christine Christopoulos and their guests on sharing experiences, information, and support ideas to help children with disabilities flourish. Loop Me In is brought to you weekly on platforms like Apple Podcast, Spotify, and Stitcher, to name a few. You can learn more, connect with the Loop Me In community, and listen to more episodes on our website loop-me-in.com.au.

Speaker 2:          Hi ladies. Welcome to our podcast. I think we’re at number nine now, so it’s very exciting.

Adwina:              Thank you. Thank you for having us.

Lindsey:              Yes, thank you for having us.

Speaker 2:          Both ladies, you’re with Riding with the Disabled, an amazing organization that’s been in Australia since about 1970. It was established in England, I believe, from what I read.

Adwina:              Yes. The origins of it was from a rider, Liz Hartel. She had a disability resulting from polio and didn’t have any muscle function really in her lower legs. She actually won silver medals for dressage in both the 1952 and ’56 Olympics. Her success there inspired the RDA movement which went to the UK and started in hospitals and became associated initially with polio, the British Polio Fellowship, and then grew from there and grew throughout the 1960s. Back in 1976, Princess Anne became the patron of RDA and she still is today. The movement grew and came to Australia in 1970.

Speaker 2:          Wow. Tell us a little bit about Elizabeth. How did she come up with the idea of putting children with the horses?

Adwina:              She was more of the inspiration behind it because she’d caused such a sensation around riding in mainstream dressage at a really elite level without having any functional lower legs. It inspired it, so she didn’t actually begin it herself, but she was the inspiration.

Speaker 2:          There’s a long waiting list, I can see as well.

Adwina:              Yes, unfortunately, because we’re volunteer, again not for profit, a registered charity, there are very, very few paid staff or paid coaches. It’s mainly volunteer based, which of course limits the times and places of operation we can operate out of. But we’re always building towards training more volunteers and more coaches and that sort of thing to expand the program. Waiting lists aren’t as much of an issue in regional Victoria, but definitely in the metropolitan area.

Speaker 2:          Ladies, what is it about horses that enables this connection between them and the child with a disability?

Adwina:              Lindsay can help me with this one, if you want. Horses are unique. Obviously, they are. They speak a different language to horses, but they still communicate with people. To interact successfully with a horse, you have to slow down and help build that connection. When you’re sitting on a horse, there’s that sense of you’re feeling empowered, because you’re on top of a large animal. You’re working on being in control of the large animal with the assistance of volunteers. There’s that sense of warmth because they are covered with hair and they’re a living animal. Our horses are very specifically chosen for their patients and their ability to work with people. I think in that way, they help build a connection to people with and without a disability.

Lindsey:              Yes, I’d agree. So horses, I find even with riders before they even get on the first time, just approaching the horse and having the horse recognize them and acknowledge them can be huge for some riders. They actually are then able to communicate with that horse quite quickly, actually. Isn’t it, [inaudible 00:04:34]. With some riders, they get that communication quite quickly, which is huge, really. It gives them such a sense of achievement. Often when maybe they can’t get that kind of connection even with people. They can then get it with this animal. It’s quite incredible.

Adwina:              I think it also enables that outdoor recreation and exploration of the world from the back of the horse as well, which may not be an option if someone has limited mobility to be out and about and enjoying the environment really promotes self-esteem and provides challenges into developing skills.

Lindsey:              Yes. Just splashing through puddles on a horse can bring so much joy to a child.

Speaker 2:          Yeah. It’s that freedom isn’t it, of being that high. Yeah. I do remember that. Yeah.

Speaker 5:          And maybe more mobile than they perhaps are themselves.

Adwina:              And with the movement of a horse, it simulates the pelvic movement of someone walking. So when you’re sitting on a horse, you’re being rocked back and forth from side to side. It’s very similar to the movement you get if you were walking. That’s why it helps with people’s mobility as well and exercising the muscles around the pelvis and the core.

Speaker 2:          I haven’t thought about that. I do remember when Matthew was quite young, he was about four or five and struggled to walk properly, the physio was the one that suggested riding horses. That really did help his core strength to be able to keep that still and be able to walk.

Adwina:              Yep. And when we’re talking about hippotherapy, which is the actual real therapy involving the horse, the therapist will choose the horse to match the rider because the horse becomes the tool. Instead of their different tools they use in their clinics and in their practices, you have a living tool that you can adjust to match the client. It’s really special in that sense, too.

Speaker 5:          Is it matching temperament or size or energy of the horse? Or what are you actually matching?

Adwina:              Matching. In that sense, they’re matching for the movement. So if a rider needs a bit more say rotation through their pelvis, they’ll get a horse that’s movement will facilitate that. Because horses themselves have different movements. Some have a very flat back and forth type movement to their walk. Some have a more side to side that really swings the rider a bit more. They’ll try and match that horse movement to what the rider requires. So if a rider needs a lot of movement, they’ll find a horse that provide that. But if perhaps they’re just starting their riding journey, they might need too much movement, because it might cause some damage if they had a really big, strong stride moving horse. They might need a horse that just takes little steps and doesn’t cause that much movement until they can build up.

Speaker 2:          Yeah. I did read about, especially with children with cerebral palsy, it’s really good for their core muscles, because they actually don’t often use those areas. It’s very strengthening for that.

Adwina:              I think as well, because you don’t have to use saddles. You can use back pads or sheep skin. You can use the warmth of the horse and the warmth of say, if you’re using a sheep skin over the horses back to help relax the muscles as well.

Speaker 5:          How long have you been doing this for?

Lindsey:              I’ve been teaching coaching for about eight years now. I just joined the state office last year, so I’ve almost been there a year. But I’ve been coaching with Riding for the Disabled for a while now. Been with horses all my life. I’m very, very horsey. The Riding for the Disabled came on a little bit later, but it’s something I’ve absolutely loved and enjoyed. Myself, I was very much a competitor. I started working with riders that were keen to go out and compete. I toddle off to the shows and Adwina would see me. Many riders in tow. Doing lots of [inaudible 00:08:50]. RDA runs shows throughout the year, which is fabulous, because riders can come from all different disabilities and compete. It’s so fun and they love it. They absolutely love it. It’s a really unique opportunity to be able to be involved with that. It’s super.

Speaker 2:          I also can see through the horses that, especially a child with autism, it can really help with their anxiety and just their emotional problems that they’re having. Even when these children get older, anxiety can heighten. I do find that the horses just relax the child.

Adwina:              Yeah.

Speaker 2:          Have you seen that in your practice?

Lindsey:              Oh yes.

Adwina:              Absolutely. We had a study done in association with Latrobe or done by Latrobe University last year. That was looking at the effects of therapeutic writing sessions on children with autism. They found that even those riders who had really challenging behaviors at school and are at home exhibited much calmer behaviors at RDA and that the parents reported the calming effect of horses on riders. Some even said that the RDA sessions were necessary for the management of their child’s condition, which was just fabulous. It was also the motivating factor I think that the children say with ASD and other developmental challenges were more willing to participate in RDA and chose to engage in preference to other therapeutic type activities that were therapies they were undertaking. It was a very positive experience and a very positive community and a lot of comments were also around acceptance and feeling at home, which was really important.

Speaker 5:          How do you get children to ride? I’m imagining with Rory, he would find it a little bit daunting to actually get on the horse. Do you start by getting on the horse or is it a gradual process? How does that work?

Lindsey:              Depends on the child really. Some can’t wait to get on. Whereas others, you need to take a bit more time with. The center that I worked at we had a mechanical horse as well. So if the child was-

Speaker 5:          Wow.

Lindsey:              And about getting on, we could put them on the mechanical horse first, show them how to mount so that they became familiar with that. How to hold the reigns, how to sit. Then when it actually came to the horse, it was a little bit less daunting.

Adwina:              Yep.

Lindsey:              Worked quite well.

Adwina:              We encourage people, well centers to give information to riders prior to beginning. Sometimes coaches will visit say a classroom or at home and perhaps take a helmet along or lend a helmet out. If a rider doesn’t like wearing helmets or it’s a bit too new, to take home and practice with. We do get some medical information prior just to make sure that that rider is safe to begin riding. I think that’s the interesting thing about RDA. You have to think outside the box. So if someone is a little reticent about riding, you can think of the different ways you can help make that person feel comfortable to get on and start. It’s interesting, I used to work at a riding school and we had a whole range of different writers coming. One thing that struck me in particular, we had a group one day of actually kids of new refugees into the country who had seen a lot of really bad stuff in their very short lives.

Some of them are very, very nervous, but just by introducing to horses, leading them around, watching other people ride was really good. Suddenly it switched on a light and everybody wanted to get on and then nobody wanted to get off. So we find that in RDA as well sometimes that once people get comfortable and they see and it’s about making that sort of leap of faith and going, “Yeah, we can do that.” Then you often find that they’re the riders you get the most joy out of because they’ve come from a position of perhaps fear or uncertainty or lack of trust going, “Yeah, we can do that.”

Speaker 2:          Yeah. So true.

Speaker 5:          In your research, did it say why the riding had a calming effect? Did they explore that?

Adwina:              Not as much. In fact, it just showed that it did have that effect. There is a growing body of research around that. There hasn’t been much. There’s a lot of anecdotal stuff, but they are working it, particularly internationally in getting some really solid evidence to a higher research level, research standard.

Speaker 5:          I was listening the other day to somebody who was talking about the side to side movement of the eye and that that side to side movement happens when you’re walking. It’s a natural thing. I guess it’s trying to find if there’s hazards around when you’re walking and that’s a kind of a natural thing for your brain to do. It has the effect of calming the amygdala, which is a part of the brain that is associated with fear. So I wonder if that movement that you were talking about, that moving the pelvis and the rocking side to side which mimics walking, might have something to do with that.

Lindsey:              Oh, maybe.

Adwina:              Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s very much a rhythmic movement, which may impact the calming influence. Just that gentle, rocking back and forth.

Speaker 2:          He was nonverbal when he was on the horse. It was just the amount of conversation, obviously still limited that he had with the horse, even though the horse couldn’t talk back to him.

Adwina:              Yep.

Speaker 2:          He started talking a lot more, the words that we had learned in speech therapy that I could never get out of him at home. When we jumped on the horse with him, it was that connection he had with the horse, because it was the same horse every week.

Adwina:              Yeah.

Speaker 2:          And then the language started to develop and we understood, “Wow. You can actually say those words that the speech therapist is trying to get you to.” Do you find that?

Lindsey:              Yes.

Adwina:              Yep. I remember we had a rider once way back and we were assured that she was nonverbal, but you found that she’s saying she would ask to go to the gate or say different words. So I think it was just such a motivating factor, the horse. And such a lovely environment to be in and is relaxation and so it definitely.

Speaker 2:          Mm.

Speaker 5:          Do you need special equipment to ride?

Adwina:              Sometimes we have an adaptive equipment register, which are formally approved because obviously they have to meet safety standards and all sorts of things. Saddles can be modified, they can be different stirrups to use. There can be different reigns to allow different grasps. We have bar reigns for someone who rides say with one hand, but Lindsay uses a lot of different equipment, don’t you in your-

Lindsey:              Yeah I do.

Adwina:              Yeah.

Lindsey:              Yep. We have some reigns that actually fix to the rider’s arms where the rider doesn’t have lower forearms and that’s especially designed so that they will come unclicked if the rider comes off, they were really a real help. We initially we used Velcro, but we found that wasn’t quite as reliable and occasionally would come undone and we really didn’t want it to come undone. [inaudible 00:16:55] circles. So a gentleman from Queensland, a saddler from Queensland stepped in and helped us to design these particular reigns for this young lady so that she could ride and go forwards and compete. Yes, as Adwina says, we use lots of different types of reigns. We use reigns with loops in them so that riders that don’t have that grasping capacity with their hands can actually just put their hands in and are able to hold on. So there’s a variety of different reigns and things that we can use to help riders that have difficulty holding them.

Speaker 2:          What about the horses? Do you need certain horses to do this type of work?

Lindsey:              Very special.

Adwina:              Yes, you do.

Lindsey:              Very special. All shapes and sizes, don’t they Adwina?

Adwina:              Oh, absolutely. Yes, we do need to have them to be really quiet, but they’ve got to be really sound in their body and fit in their body as well as in their mind. So they need to be strong. They need to be able to work, but they also need that patience. Just ability to work with people really isn’t it, Lindsay? They’ve got to really want to work with you.

Lindsey:              That’s right. You’ve got to have that horse that really wants to be there and working with you. I’ve worked with some amazing horses over the years that just know what it is that I need. Although the rider’s on and giving instructions, you know that horse is listening to you as the coach and following the instructions that you are giving. And really you just build this amazing connection with these horses so that they can help riders develop their independence. So the horse will know that you want it to walk on, know from the coach, the rider gives the aid, but the horse is really working with you as a coach. But the rider then feels that they’re doing it themselves and eventually that’s the way it works. They’ve learned how to do that and they become independent and that’s quite incredible.

The horses, they are quite amazing as to how they RDApt. You’ll have a rider get on that potentially can walk, drop canter, and the horse will do exactly that. Then you put a rider on that really needs to be able to walk and the horse will bring it right back down and just stay and walk for that rider. They’re quite phenomenal,

Adwina:              Particularly for the hoist and different mounting strategies as well. So some riders do need to use a hoist to get on, or some riders need to use the ramp to get on. The horse has to be able to stand there to allow that to safely occur. So they really do have that understanding then that if say, if there’s a bit of a loud noise or they get a bit impatient or they want to move off, they realize that, oh no, Nope. We’ve got to stand here until we’re told to go.

Speaker 5:          Wish I had that horse. I had an experience as a child where I went to a horse riding camp and the horse was very frisky and took off and I ended up just holding it around its neck, whispering in its ear to stop. Well, and I definitely need a hoist now at my age to get on a horse. So maybe I should come too. But just wondering what sort of training is required for a coach?

Adwina:              Well, we do ask that a coach sort of volunteers or attends center for a while so they understand what we do, because you really have to see it in action and you really have to really see it and understand it to fit in as a coach. Then we have several levels. So there’s an orientation or introductory coaching course, which allows someone to train up and become coach assistant or assistant coach. Then there’s a level one coach who can manage and run programs at a center. Then if people are really interested, they can do a level two riding coach as well, which is more competitive and more into the therapeutic, deeper into that side.

We also have carriage driving. So they branch off and do carriage driving coaching, and also vaulting, which is performing as a team on a horse. So using a horse at a walk and at a canter, we haven’t had too many canter vaulters where you can get on from the ground and perform a series of gymnastic type movements on the horse. But that is really good, particularly at the lower levels to develop teamwork because people will help themselves on and off, they might sit on the horse as a pair and work together. So that’s great as well. The process of becoming a coach usually takes between one and two years and you do have to have set number of hours of experience and be mentored by a coach educator.

Speaker 2:          When’s the right time for a child to come to your center?

Adwina:              I don’t know if there is a set right time. If someone’s interested in riding and feels they can cope perhaps with a large animal. But again, we do have strategies to work out and some people might need to go away and visit and then process before coming back. So really it’s very individual.

Speaker 2:          Yeah. What sort of safety considerations do you have? I remember I was always worried Matthew was going to let go and back then, I don’t think they had anything else available. But I was always scared he was going to let go and fall over and he never did. But what are the safety considerations you take now?

Adwina:              Obviously, horses have the potential to be dangerous tools of the trade so to speak. So all of our volunteers are trained to provide various supports to riders, but also in horse behavior and horse management. We’re very regulated with a lot of policies and procedures to ensure the safety of everyone, including the horses as well. If you are looking at a session and rider support is that that rider might need one or two side walkers, that is people walking alongside them to help provide support. The horse could have a leader, so they’re in control of the horse. Then those side walkers are able to provide feedback to the coach or feedback from the coach to the rider as to keep things safer and effective. If necessary, they’re trained in performing emergency dismounts where they can get the rider off very quickly if something was going to go wrong or perhaps the horse is getting annoyed, perhaps there’s a fly buzzing around and it, and the horse is getting a bit anxious, or perhaps the rider is getting anxious.

So we are trained in some intervening, but also a set of different holds and supports in place to help support the rider on the horse.

Speaker 5:          What’s the best story that you’ve got? The best experience that you can tell us about?

Adwina:              I think back to one rider, and out of many stories like I said, it reminded me before there was this little boy that came along once and we used to have this very cute little Welsh pony. He was only about 11 or 12 hands high, he was tiny, but it was such a good pony. He did not want to get on. He was that anxious about getting on. He was really worried. He was to the point of tears. So we got him leading the horse and he had a volunteer with him that was helping leading and initially he was hanging right at the end of the lead rope.

And the volunteer was between him and the horse and he was leading it around. But gradually after about half an hour, he decided that it would be okay if he got on. But I was walking beside him and his little knuckles were white and hanging onto my arm going, “Don’t let go. Don’t let go.” Then gradually we played some games and we did things and by the end, he was riding with a leader, but I was about two meters away. Suddenly it just dawned on his face. He just went, “I’m doing this.” And there was just the look of absolute joy on his face. I can remember to this day and it was like 15 years ago. I was like, “Yeah, that was good.”

Lindsey:              I had a young lady come to me who was completely blind. She’s in her early twenties and she wanted to ride. We got her on the horse and we started her riding and she absolutely fell in love with it. She adored it and wanted to come every day if possible. We took her to the state championships. It was the first competition she’d ever done in anything. She was a walk rider. She did everything in walk, but she wanted to enter everything that she possibly could. So we put her in every single class that we could get her into. One of them was the show jumping. So we took her, she was a bit nervous to start with, but she did the first round and did it really, really well. She got into the jump off, but she went clear. She was in the jump off. She had a particularly competitive leader who really helped her get around quite quickly. At the end she said, “Oh, so much fun. I absolutely loved it. It was so much fun.”

Then when it came to the prize giving, she’d actually won the show jumping. She just was in so much shock. She said, “I’ve never won anything in my life.”

Adwina:              Bless her.

Lindsey:              The most gorgeous thing. She still rides with us to this day and she just absolutely loves it. She can’t get enough of horses. COVID at the moment, she hasn’t been able to come out much, but she did message me the other day and say, “I just want to smell a horse.”

Speaker 5:          She’s a woman after your own heart I think.

Lindsey:              Yes, she is indeed. Yeah.

Speaker 5:          Absolutely. She’s a horse woman. So lovely to talk to you both today and you’ve inspired me to come out and bring Louis out and see whether he’d like to get on a horse. I know I’ve taken him to farms and things where the horses just actually come over to the fence and follow him around the fence. So I guess he’s got the language, but has never been on a horse. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been lovely to meet you.

Speaker 2:          So lovely ladies. Thank you.

Adwina:              No worries. Thank you. Lovely to meet you too.

Lindsey:              Yeah. Lovely to meet you. Thank you.

Speaker 5:          Bye bye.

Speaker 2:          Thanks ladies.

Speaker 1:          Thanks for being part of the Loop Me In community today and joining our conversation on raising children with disabilities. Join us for the next episode on some of your favorite platforms like Spotify and Apple podcast. If you would like to support us, please recommend the Loop Me In podcast to your network of parents, carers, and providers. If you would like us to cover a topic or invite a guest to chat, please email us at contact@loop-me-in.com.au, or go to our website at loop-me-in.com.au. If you’ve got any feedback, please let us know so we can improve and cover issues you want.

And of course, if anything in the podcast today has raised concerns for you, you can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13114.

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