In 2006, I started working on a documentary project I call “Riding with thisABILITIES.” It’s 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. In it we learn what therapeutic riding is and how it benefits the children
Horses are such beautiful and sensitive animals. In Therapeutic Horse Riding, they’re used to help participants exercise muscles, in the case of physical disability, in a manner that can’t be duplicated in a typical therapeutic setting. Participants with emotional problems gain confidence and learn to control their emotions. It is a truly 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 with and engage other children. While Josue, wracked with cerebral palsy, gained confidence and physical strength. We 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 NYS Housing Authority. That 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,” rather than seeing them for what they are, programs that empower people. 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 our priorities. Funding programs like Therapeutic Horse Riding is an investment in our “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!
Most programs are privately funded. In spite of the help they received, after the children's graduation, the stable is 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 disABILITIES,” is, I hope, a call to arms.