Riding a Horse: A New Experience

By Irene Schiff

Everything began with a group of parents throwing ideas around.

"At first I was so curious, but at the same time I was a little scared and so at the beginning I let my friends climb on their horses and I stayed close to them, walking. Then, I wanted to try too, and at the end I didn't want to climb down anymore." This is Giulio speaking, a friendly boy and one of the four participants to the week of horse riding for girls and boys who are blind or visually impaired. Four 11-year-olds full of vitality and curiosity, two boys and two girls willing to experience new things, but, of course, also a little scared. For most of them, it was their first experience, but after five days they knew how to saddle, clean, lead their own horse either in a ring or for a ride. Not only that, they even learned how to carry out small carousels and team games, always under the affectionate supervision of their instructors. Everything began with a group of parents throwing ideas around, ideas immediately welcomed with much willingness by the Institute for the Blind Francesco Cavazza and particularly its director Mario Barbuto. It was organized, thanks to the Aiasport Association, in the wide and green ring of San Lazzaro, Il parco dei cavalli-Gese. Differently abled on a horse
Twenty years ago, I began working in this field when it would have been more credible to say you had just met an alien rather than think that a person with a disability could practice horse riding! I have seen so many boys and girls riding, but every time it is so moving to see the fond and productive relationship that is created between differently abled persons and a horse. Hippotherapy is a very ancient technique, even discussed in the fourth century B.C., but only recently is it again back in practice with much satisfaction. What is so special about a horse for Camilla, Debora, Giulio and Matteo, our Amazons and cavaliers, that they have decided to try it first for a week and then wanted to make it a weekly event for 2004-2005? Let's ask them directly. "What I liked most?" says the affectionate Camilla "to go for rides in trails going up because I could feel that the horse was strong, but at the same time I was the one telling him where he was to go." "For me" adds Matteo the chatterbox of the groupPersons with disabilities on horses with instructors "it was fun to lie on his back and kneel on the saddle like an



athlete in a circus. We have also talked to the veterinarian, the artisan and the man who takes care of the horses and we learned so many new things." What about the more technical aspects? First we concentrated on ORIENTATION. In fact, it was essential for the kids to have a good understanding of their environment and to succeed in getting around in an independent way between the stable, the harness room and the ring. We then went on to the SPORTING ASPECT of it: getting close to the horse, getting on it, basic rules to ride it; when on the saddle, get the horse to go ahead, have it turn in the desired direction, stop it. It isn't all that simple. All of us, and particularly persons who are blind, use the contact of our feet on the ground for orientation, but sitting on a saddle on a horse, this is impossible to do.
It is not possible either to touch walls or furniture, other usual sources of information, because the hands are busy holding the reins. The awareness of one's own position in space must therefore be absolutely clear. It is not easy work even if blind or visually impaired persons have gotten used to it.
Our cavaliers have also fabricated the model of a ring with the collaboration of the whole team of instructors, lead by physiotherapist Claudio Bonazzi, but the whole thing is their doing. To better give an idea of orientation, numerous aids from the place were used: to recreate a sandy terrain, sand from the area itself was used; to indicate the large oak tree where in its shade horses and cavaliers rested or attented educational activities (for the latter, only cavaliers!), pieces of bark and leaves were used from the same tree and these were gathered, of course, by the children themselves. And the FUN part? With four participants such as these, fun was certainly around! And Aramis, Cico, Linda and Margherita, the four sensitive and patient chargers, what did they think? Translating into words the grace of their movements, the calm with which they let themselves be held, cleaned, riden, the pleasure they demonstrate when they crunched noisily on the carrots the cavaliers gave them, it's hard to tell who from this experience is more content, the horses or the cavaliers. In regards to SELF ESTEEM, emotions and cognition fundamental to all, particularly those who are differently abled, I believe that the best comment would be the one we have kept for last by the proud and sweet Debora, the fourth participant in the group who said, while she was busy taking the saddle off her horse: "I can go on a horse, but my friends can't."