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Riding with disABILITIES

Matthew Handal

Help children help themselves. "Riding with disABILITIES" is about a group of children that did just that in the summer of 2006 with the help of Therapeutic Horse Riding.

In 2006, I started working on a documentary project I call “Riding with disABILITIES.” It’s about a group of children with either physical and/or emotional disabilities in a therapeutic horse program. The program took place at the historic, now-closed, Claremont Riding Academy on Manhattan's Upper Westside. 

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. Josue, wracked with cerebral palsy, gained confidence and physical strength. And 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? The United States spends more on defense than all the countries of the world combined, but we pay lip-service to social programs like Therapeutic Horse Riding that improve the lives of citizens, especially the most vulnerable in society. 

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 the “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, even the top 1% of society! 

“Riding with disABILITIES,” is, I hope, like the great photo essay and book by Jacob Riis at the turn of the century, a call to arms.     

Please see Segment on the WEBSITE link_thank you, MH