Riding with thisABILITIES” is the story about a group of children with either physical and/or emotional disabilities that are empowered through a therapeutic horse program. The program took place at the historic, now closed, Claremont Riding Academy on Manhattan’s Upper Westside.
Horses are such beautiful and sensitive animals. Unlike other animals, horses are “prey animals” so that they are deeply attuned to their surroundings in a way that many other animals are not. They sense emotion and physical movements. In the case of physical disability, they help participants exercise muscles in a manner that can not be duplicated in a typical therapeutic environment. Plus it’s more fun! Participants with emotional problems learn to control their emotions and gain confidence in part because of their mastery of such a huge animal and the expectation that they can. In addition, there is also something to be said about unconditional acceptance. The therapeutic horse riding environment is truly nurturing. The people involved, and the horses, want us to be our best, true selves.
It is a powerful modality that is life changing and life affirming. Like all good social programs, it effected and improved the quality of life of everyone involved. Zack, an autistic child, came out of his shell and started to communicate and engage other children. While Josue, afflicted with cerebral palsy requiring him to use a walker, increased his physical strength especially to his core while getting a good stretch of his leg muscles. He also gained confidence. In the film, we also meet them as young adults and see how well they’ve done. Meanwhile, the doctors, trainers, therapist, mounted police officers, and the many volunteers were transformed by doing “God’s” work: work that was meaningful, tangible and concrete.
The demand for Therapeutic Riding Programs far exceeds their availability especially for low income, urban participants. Of the twelve participating children, four were sponsored by the NYC Housing Authority or NYCHA. That number represents a tiny fraction of the hundreds of disabled children that could benefit from the program. Why is there such a dearth of funds available for a program with proven benefits?
There’s a tendency in the United States to equate social programs with welfare and “socialism.” The people receiving it as shiftless, getting something for nothing from the government. The truth is very different. These programs empower people to help themselves. It’s time to change the dialog and put the lie to the old Christian maxim, “charity begins at home.” We, the government and society, need to question these ideas. Funding programs like therapeutic horse riding is an investment in human capitol: the families, communities, and schools of our future. At a time of fiscal constraint, it actually saves money in terms of the dollars returned to dollars spent, and lowers the debt, by helping to create citizens that contribute to rather than burden society. Everyone benefits!
But most programs are privately funded. Despite the help the children received from the program, after the children’s graduation, the stable was sold and the program ends. In a postscript, there’s a plea for society to spend more money on therapeutic horse riding, and programs like it, so that everyone has a chance to “Ride with theirABILITY.”
Like the great photo essay and book by Jacob Riis, “Riding with thisABILITIES,” is, I hope, a call to arms.