Awakening the Senses Through Therapeutic Horseback Riding

By Connie Helms, M.Ed

In the last days of summer I had the pleasure of experiencing a Therapeutic Horseback Riding lesson with Deborah Pearson-Moyers, who owns Blues Skies of Maple View stables near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Deborah is an enthusiastic woman who has raised four children in the Emerson Waldorf School community and whose husband teaches at the school. In addition to offering camps, riding lessons, and “Intuitive Women’s Riding” , Deborah has worked with children on the autism spectrum. In order for me to gain an understanding of what this experience is like for a child, I had to get on a horse (Audrey McAllen tells us to get on our horse after all). But before I could actually get ON the horse, I had to go through a whole series of tasks that prepared me for riding and which flooded my senses and kept me alert.

First there was donning a helmet, which brought me more consciousness about my the safety of my head. Deborah then introduced me to Ginger, a friendly older mare, and instructed me about the parts of a horse and what I should know in order to establish a trusting relationship with the animal. There is a whole language just in reading the horse’s ears that express contentment or agitation! After fetching the caddie with all the grooming equipment, I was taught how to brush Ginger, how to go with the grain of her coat, how to comb her mane, and which areas of her body to avoid. When it came time to clean her feet, I had to lean my weight against Ginger in order to lift each of her feet to clean out her hooves with a special tool. There was even a whole protocol about which side of the horse I needed to begin working on – sticking to the routine the horse is used to will put it at ease.

After the grooming was done, no quick task, I led my horse to the fenced in riding ring. To mount Ginger, I balanced on my left leg on the mounting block and swung my straight right leg over her back carefully to avoid bumping her vital organs. I had to be very aware of where my body was in space. Deborah had me practice slipping off, in case I ever needed to make a quick exit. It was a moment of feeling my balance and feeling how I could also be in control.

spinal twist on horseOnce mounted, Deborah asked if I knew yoga poses. Well, yes, but on a horse? It was a bit daunting at first but then I held my arms out shoulder high and exhaled while twisting over the tail in both directions (see photo). This spinal twist, well known to yoga practitioners, brings flexibility but also alerts Deborah about riders who may be stiff or dizzy. For a child with vestibular issues and the tendency to be dizzy, this information is critical to a successful experience. Then, I did a stretch to the poll (bump between the ears) and the dock (bump at the top of the tail) with the right arm and then the left without letting my legs swing backwards on the horse’s side, thus unconsciously signaling the horse to walk on. I could just imagine how hard this would be for a child with proprioceptive and vestibular issues and at the same time how therapeutic it really is in helping a child to navigate space and control his limbs. Next, I touched one knee at a time with the opposite hand. Had I been on a saddle, it would have been a toe touch to the foot in the stirrup. Deborah calls this “Finding the four corners of the horse”. It empowers the rider to find herself in space and to not feel that she is clinging onto the back of the horse but is held up by the air.

Riding then began with Deborah leading Ginger by a rope as we did a couple laps around the ring. As I was bareback, I held onto the horse’s mane. I was very tuned in to the warmth emanating from her flanks and the fact that there isn’t much to hold onto. It made me develop great respect for Native Americans who rode bareback, especially when going fast.

Next, I had to learn how to make the horse turn. Well, in the cowboy movies it all looks so easy-they just pull on the reins, right? Wrong! Deborah taught me that my intention and my gaze toward a direction would turn the horse and by pressing my leg very firmly into the horses’s side, I could control which way I wanted the horse to turn. By gosh, it worked, and then I was ready for the cones. I was supposed to make Ginger weave in and out in a lemniscate pattern among several bright orange cones in a line. This meant I had to switch my leg pressure back and forth several times between left and right. What a workout! If my powers of balance were tested in the weaving and turning, the ante was upped when it was time to have the horse do a light trot. I had to press both my legs into Ginger’s sides just to feel a bit more in control of my balance, and hold on with a sense of trust that I would stay on (which I did).

After dismounting onto the block (reluctantly leaving Ginger’s warm body) and leading her back to the grooming shed, there was more work to be done. She had to be brushed again, so I had to remember which side to start on and how to go with the flow of her hair. Of course there was the carrot to give her as a treat, patting her sides and thanking her for our ride. All the time on and off the horse, Deborah pointed to Ginger’s ears to clue me about her level of ease. I had not been on a horse since day camp as a ten year old, and this adventure brought back the memory of the smell and warmth of a horse, and the feel of its mouth on my hands.

For those of you well familiar with the Twelve Senses, hopefully you have a clear picture of the many senses used in horseback riding, especially bareback, and how a child coming into this experience must come into his or her body quite a bit to be balanced, focused, and in control of the horse. In addition, the grooming procedure leads one to engage in the process of caring for a large animal and forming a trusting bond. To heighten the intensity of the experience and further strengthen the vestibular system and sense of self-movement, Deborah Pearson-Moyers advises that one should then do parts of the lesson with eyes closed. I can imagine how hard this would be for a child who relies on vision strongly to navigate in space. It’s time to schedule that next lesson and find out!
Connie Helms, M.Ed. has a private Extra Lesson practice in Vermont, consults with schools in the eastern U.S., and mentors Waldorf remedial teachers in training.

Deborah Pearson-Moyers’ website isĀ