Becoming, being and belonging

Dr Rwth Stuckey’s research explores how therapeutic horse-riding programs offer safe places for children with cognitive disorders, and their parents.

Rwth grew up on a dairy farm riding her father’s stock horses. Thirty years later, living with MS she was losing muscle tone and bored with the gym. That was when she contacted her local Riding for the Disabled centre, and met her beloved horse, Beau. Together they competed in eventing and dressage competitions for fifteen years.

As Rwth explains, “For me, it was the best form of exercise, even during my ‘wheelchair’ weeks.”

Her experience with the program, married with her academic interests as an occupational therapist, lead to her research on how Riding for the Disabled programs work, why they worked, and if the benefits could be transferred to other recreational activities.

Children with cognitive disorders, such as autism spectrum disorders, are sensitive to stimulus and frustration and can be noisy and violent; they find themselves unwelcome in social spaces. Riding for the Disabled offers a safe space for these children to learn how to manage boundaries and practice psycho-social skills.

The program also helps children establish their own identity, to become part of a community, as a horse rider. They gain a powerful sense of becoming, being and belonging. These understandings can be applied to the rest of their life.

As one of the coaches observed, “One child refused to wear a helmet and it is ‘no helmet no ride’. It was nearly a whole term before he finally put his helmet on - and then he rode and he was fine. Later his mum told us he went for a ride on his bike with his dad. Because he wouldn’t wear a helmet he hadn’t been able to ride his bike before this.”

For parents it is a safe place where their children’s behaviour is accepted and managed appropriately, and they can meet kindred spirits in the other parents, the volunteers and the coaches.

Rwth wants to carry this research further and look at what safe recreational spaces mean for policy, for parents and for children. She wants to do more work with accrediting and acknowledging volunteers.

Would to know more?

Read Dr Rwth Stuckey’s report, Taking the Reins.

Riding for the Disabled has unique status as a volunteer-run therapeutic riding program. If you are interested in volunteering you can contact your local RDA centre.