Horses have been used for special needs therapy for a long time.
Sometimes it is just fun to ride a horse.
MIDDLETOWN – Written by Amanda Oglesby@OglesbyAPP —Teddy Dieterman sat tall in the saddle Thursday as he rode one of Sunnyside Equestrian Center’s horses through an obstacle course in a Lincroft paddock.
Dieterman, a seventh-grader from Hillsborough who has autism, and a group of his classmates from Collier Middle School in the Wickatunk section of Marlboro spent the sunny morning watching and riding the horses as part of Sunnyside’s Equine Environment for Learning. The program provides horse-based therapies for children with disabilities.
Students from Collier Middle School —which serves children with emotional and behavioral challenges —meet once a week over two months in the program, designed by riding instructors at Sunnyside. Through it, Collier’s principles of respect, responsibility, safety and kindness are echoed.
“Horses are great teachers. They give immediate feedback,” said Jackie West, head instructor of therapeutic horsemanship at Sunnyside.
The program has helped the students work in teams, develop self-esteem, and learn to read the body language of animals, she said. Many of the students have severe anxiety or have trouble regulating their emotions, yet both teachers and students find the horses have a soothing effect.
“It’s calming and relaxing, being around horses,” said eighth-grader Nick Portello of Freehold.
Seventh-grader Matthew Crochet of Oceanport agreed.
“They make me feel safe,” Matthew said. “You can tell by their ears the way they’re feeling, the way they’re thinking.”
“He really loves it,” said his mother, Gina Crochet, 47. “It’s something he looks forward to every day.”
Cindy D’Arcy, director of Collier Middle School, said she approached Sunnyside last fall about crafting a program for the students. Sunnyside staff, who are a part of the Monmouth County Park System, agreed, and by February, the students had started classes.
“The community needs a place where people with disabilities can come and have a sport,” West said.
Stephanie Farrell, a Collier social worker, said the students are becoming more conscientious through working with the horses, and are beginning to carry their new skills through to their human relationships.
“It’s really great to see them with the animals,” said Farrell as she leaned against a fence in the paddock. “Here, you get to see a different side of them.”
In addition to the social benefits, horseback riding helps with the brain’s processing of balance and movement, said Barbara Duggan, co-president of the Monmouth County-based group called SPUR, or Special People United to Ride.
The group raises money for riding scholarships, trainer education, and equipment for people with special needs, she said.
Using horses in physical, occupational and language therapy for people with disabilities is a 30-year-old practice, according to the American Hippotherapy Association.
Teddy hopes one day to be a dog groomer, and he sees his time grooming the horses as good practice.
“I like the feel of it,” said Teddy after riding around Sunnyside’s paddock. “It makes me feel like I have a purpose.”