There’s something tranquil and enchanting about horses. Their steady, slowly swaying gait gently rocks riders around the ring, providing a regal vantage point that lifts them above their troubles and positions them, momentarily, in the imaginary saddle of a knight, cowgirl or king.
At Lothlorien Therapeutic Riding Center in East Aurora and Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center in North Buffalo, horses serve as four-legged healers for children with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges.
Horses don’t judge. These kind-hearted giants, with velveteen muzzles and big, understanding eyes that seem to see directly into the soul, stand silently by as an anxious child finds serenity in brushing his mane, or as a young woman in a wheelchair walks freely with help from the horse’s strong legs. The animals have a gift for quietly coaxing children who don’t usually communicate verbally to say “walk on,” “whoa,” or “back” in the saddle.
The horses have a sixth sense, says Lothlorien Executive Director Maggie Keller.
“A rider will be about to have a seizure and the horse knows it’s coming before the child or the instructor,” Keller marvels. “He’ll stop, plant his feet, and get stable just before the seizure starts.”
To become a therapy horse, an animal has to be “a good citizen,” as Keller puts it. They’re generally older, more seasoned horses aged anywhere from 14 to 23 years old. They have a mild temperament, and an unfazed, “been there, done that” attitude. More tends to be asked of them mentally than physically; there’s no running or jumping involved, but they have to be patient as they stand still at a ramp as riders carefully mount, and keep their cool if someone has an outburst or unexpected movement in the saddle.
Programs employ diminutive mini horses all the way up to enormous Clydesdales to accommodate riders of different weights. Some had previous lives in the show performance circuit, while others worked as trail horses before starting their careers in therapy.
The emotional support, relaxation and joy that children experience in the presence of a horse is not limited to riding. At Lothlorien’s Kids’ Pony Express, kids read to mini horses without pressure to get the words exactly right, then groom their coats and talk about their book.
At Hospice’s Camp Blue Skies (a Lothlorien program) kids paint emotions — sadness, fear — with safe paints onto the horses, then literally wash their sadness away. For the horse, it’s a soothing afternoon of petting. But for the kids, who pause between brush strokes to sneak little kisses and rest their foreheads on a soft cheek, it’s so much more.