A short drive down Peter Road in Ruimsig, Roodepoort, will bring you to a blue sign alongside the road that indicates the entrance to The Earth Centre. The small plot of land is used to provide horse therapy for around 140 children with disabilities.
The Earth Centre was born out of the Gauteng division of South African Riding for the Disabled Association (SARDA), which was founded in 1984. The centre was established in 2013 to provide SARDA Gauteng with additional funding. Now, however, it aims to become an independent organisation.
A group of students from Soweto-based Adelaide Tambo School streams out of the minibus for their Monday session. While some children who can afford it, do pay for their lessons, the majority of the centre’s riders are from poorer communities and might never have had this opportunity otherwise.
“School therapists will pick the children they think will benefit the most from this form of therapy. Children will attend for a term or more, depending on their needs. Most children ride for about a year,” says Nicole Ras, marketing manager at The Earth Centre.
While most of the children from this particular group have cerebral palsy (CP), the centre also accommodates children with spina bifida, paralysis, autism, Down’s syndrome, ADD and ADHD, among other disabilities.
The centre mostly receives funding through donations or functions to raise funds. It has a handful of permanent staff members, with the majority of the team consisting of volunteers who have a passion for children with disabilities and/or for horses.
Taking care of the kiddies
Various precautions are made to ensure that the children are safe. To one side of the field there is a concrete ramp. The students from Adelaide Tambo School mount the horses at the tallest end, with several volunteers standing by to assist.
Depending on the child’s mobility, they can mount independently or are placed on the horse and a leg is swung over. Instead of a saddle, this particular group of children ride on a back pad as this allows the children that are diplegic to begin to release the tension in their legs as a result of the warmth and movement of the horse.
Throughout the 30-minute session, multiple volunteers are close by to assist, depending on the skill level and disability of the child. One volunteer will guide the horse, while one or more assist in keeping the child upright if they are not able to balance themselves.
Sessions are kept to 30 minutes to achieve the maximum benefit from the therapy. “After 15 to 20 minutes the children start to get tired because muscles that are usually inactive get stimulated,” Ras explains. Volunteers are present for all rides for the safety of the child and help to balance them and assist them with their exercises.
A perfect match
A horse is picked to suit the child’s build and disability. The horses used with students from Adelaide Tambo School in the morning sessions are narrow horses – ideal for children with physical disabilities that have spasticity in their legs as the three-dimensional movements help to relax their muscles.
Bigger barrel horses are used for children with autism as this helps them to feel more balanced and secure, and the movement of the horse tends to keeps them aware yet relaxed.
Only four horses are used in a session. This allows the instructor to pay close attention to each child and prevent any movement that might be harmful or impact negatively on the child’s therapy.
Most of the horses at the centre can only carry a weight of up to 60kg, but an assessment is done beforehand. The centre does have some adult riders.
Benefits to horse therapy
There are numerous benefits to horse therapy depending on the child’s disability. Especially for children with CP, the movement of the horse relaxes their muscles and strengthens their core.
In one particular session, one could see the spasticity in the child’s legs by how they were sitting on the horse. They have to be mounted in a special way – by sitting sideways on the horse and then having a volunteer assist them in taking their right leg over the horse’s neck so that they are sitting facing forward. The tightness in their legs does not allow them to mount by swinging their leg behind them and over the horse.
When the session begins, the child looks as if they are sitting on a chair, by half way through the session, their muscles have started to relax and their legs hang at ease on either side of the horse.
“The riding stimulates the proprioceptive system, which is used for balance and co-ordination. The horses’ movements and their warmth relax spastic muscles and they exercise their core. Most of the improvements can usually be seen within 12 weeks,” Ras explains.
Moreover, horse riding provides the children with unique skills and self-confidence. “The psychological benefits include learning a new skill, more confidence and a better self-image,” she says. The advantages also filter into the classroom: it boosts the children’s focus and interaction, while better coordination and posture at their desks improve their writing skills.
How a session works
After climbing onto the horses, the children are guided around the field. After one or two laps, the warm-up starts with the children stretching their arms and twisting their bodies from side to side. Warm-up activities might differ slightly, but the aim stays the same: to improve the posture of the children so that they will exercise the correct muscles.
After another couple of laps, the children (depending on their skill level) are given the reins and practise steering their horse, with the volunteers not too far away. A student tends to stick to one particular horse throughout the programme.
The Earth Centre has a total of 16 horses and two miniature donkeys. The donkeys are mostly used in the Pat n Chat programme, which allows children who are unable to ride the opportunity to interact with them.
“The donkeys are used where a person can’t ride, but still wants to engage with the animal, which has been seen to have many emotional and psychological benefits. Just being around an unprejudiced being that has unlimited and unconditional love helps to reduce stress levels and mental fatigue, and guides people toward building healthy and meaningful relationships,” Ras explains.
Some of the horses have been donated, others were bought, and some are on long-term leases that allow the centre to use the horses although they remain the property of their owners. The centre only has capacity for around 18 horses. While The Earth Centre will always welcome donated animals, Ras emphasises how important it is that horses are still healthy enough to participate in horse therapy.
“An unsound horse (that might have a limp, for example) impacts the quality of the physical therapy,” she says. While the centre takes particular care with its students, it also cares very well for its horses.
“We try to keep their lifestyle as similar as possible to what they would experience in nature,” Ras comments.
The horses live in a herd outside, and graze or feed on all-natural products, which are compiled to resemble what they would eat if they were in the wild.
The Earth Centre is also focused on training the horses in a respectful, unharmful manner. Although the volunteers do wield whips during sessions, they are rarely used and then only to tap the horse lightly to get it walking. The volunteers are discouraged from pulling on the horses’ reins during a session as this can impact on the children’s therapy.
Training for volunteers
The volunteers receive some basic training to allow them to work with the students, but have the option to obtain a professional certificate in horse therapy. Traditionally the centre worked with SARDA, but plans are under way to launch its own programme with CEEPSA and other therapeutic riding centres in 2020 to allow volunteers to do their full training and examinations at the centre.