Equine Magic–healing through horses
Alicia Crossley brushed aside her shoulder-length blond hair to show off the blue ribbon she had clipped to her shirt. “I feel proud, really proud,” she says beaming. The 19-year-old from Bridgewater won first place during a Little Britches horse show held at Steep Rock Preserve in Washington earlier this year.
Since she began riding with Little Britches six years ago, Alicia, who has Down syndrome, has gained not only an enormous sense of pride, but improved muscle strength, posture, and coordination. Perhaps, just as important, when she is in the ring she is like any other athlete: poised, focused, and confident. “I’m so grateful for the program,” says Alicia’s mom, Cheri. “I have two other children who are involved in sports, but riding is where Alicia can shine.”
It’s been more than 40 years since Little Britches was founded. Back in 1979, the fledgling nonprofit was based in Litchfield. Paul Sweeney, husband of the late Peg Sweeney who co-founded Little Britches with Betty Lou McColgin, said the concept of therapeutic riding was still somewhat unconventional in the beginning.
When Sweeney first approached the special education department at Litchfield High School asking if she could bring some of the students to a neighboring stable to ride, “They were like you want to do what?’” he recalled.
Equine-assisted therapy was first practiced in the 1960s, in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, as an adjunct to traditional physical therapy. The first riding centers in North America began in the 1960s, and the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) was launched in 1969. But it took awhile for the practice to have applications beyond physical therapy.
Sweeney and McColgin started Little Britches with the aim of offering individuals from kids to seniors who face different challenges an opportunity to improve their physical and mental wellbeing through working with horses and ponies.
Today, those individuals are often on the periphery of many athletic and social activities, but in the riding program they are no longer watching from the sidelines, they are participating. Little Britches instructors are certified through Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International and serve individuals with a wide range of special needs, including those suffering from traumatic brain injury, speech abnormalities, attention deficit disorder, autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, anxiety disorder, and multiple sclerosis, as well as processing delays.
Little Britches’s executive director Alice Daly, heads up the program out of Tophet Road Farm, which is owned by her aunt Stuart Daly, vice president of the organization.
The riding program’s motto is: “It’s all in the movement”. For the 80 riders who visit the stable weekly, the horse’s movement can help improve their own mobility. A horse’s hips rotate in the same fashion as human’s hips, helping the rider to develop muscle memory. The rhythm of the gait helps riders to sit up straighter and build core strength, which translates to improved balance and coordination.
More than 70 volunteers donate their time on a regular basis, working as horse leaders and “side walkers” in the ring. They are often skilled riders like Janie Larson, a retired Ridgefield middle school teacher and president of the board of directors.
Larson got roped into the program once she observed, first hand, how riders flourished.
“My life has been all about horses and teaching, and making a difference in kids’ lives,” said Larson. So when she heard about the program, she decided to try it out.
“The first time I went out with a rider, we had two walkers on each side of the horse. The child riding was about seven and she was completely slumped over in the saddle. I remember thinking: ‘What are we doing here?’ We kept straightening her up. Then, we stopped and suddenly she just sat straight up on her own and cried out in sheer joy. I just lost it; I was hooked.”
Stuart Daly, 78, has witnessed countless similar outcomes since the program began. “Horses have such healing properties,” she said.
“What is the saying, ‘There’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.’ Well, we see that all the time.”