SUNY Cobleskill has launched a four-year bachelor’s degree program in therapeutic horsemanship for the fall semester, which the school said is the first of its kind in New York and one of less than a dozen higher education programs in the country offering certification with the industry’s governing body, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
Therapeutic horsemanship seeks to help people with physical, emotional or cognitive disabilities overcome those impairments through interaction and engagement with horses.
Ray Whelihan, who teaches other equine-related courses at SUNY Cobleskill, said between courses like applied psychology and early childhood development already offered by the school, it made sense to offer therapeutic horsemanship as a four-year degree program.
“The coursework was already here between early childhood, physical education and psychology that we were able to put together a very well-rounded curriculum,” said Whelihan.
It took a full two years to build the therapeutic horsemanship curriculum and get it approved by SUNY officials and the state Department of Education, he said. The school previously offered therapeutic horsemanship as a minor, as well as other degree programs that involve learning from horses like agricultural business and animal science.
The school has about 45 horses stabled on campus, with room for 15 more, and large indoor and outdoor arenas for training and coursework.
Margaret “Marny” Mansfield, who was hired to teach the therapeutic horsemanship program at SUNY Cobleskill, said she’s seen increasing interest in the field and more people choosing therapeutic horsemanship as a first career as opposed to a second or third.
“I think that’s the difference that we’re seeing – instead of people going out with some other degree, that they’re coming specifically with this degree to work in a therapeutic riding program and choosing it as a profession,” said Mansfield.
She said many who have been involved in therapeutic riding since the beginning of the industry are getting into retirement age and beyond.
“I think we’re seeing a different generation coming into it as a profession and seeing that it’s a place where you can potentially have a profession in,” said Mansfield.
Sophomore Rachel Butler, 19, said she was able to see firsthand how powerful a horse’s love can be towards a person when she inherited her grandfather’s mare “NoHilla” after his passing. Taking ownership of the horse helped her get over her grandfather’s death, whom she was close with.
“Just from taking care of her and the effect that she had on me,” said Butler.
“I wanted to find something with horses I could do as a career but be able to somehow combine what they could do for people at the same time,” said Butler, who grew up in Seward, a town in Schoharie County about 15 minutes from SUNY Cobleskill.
Butler said she hopes to get her degree in therapeutic horsemanship and for a career work with at-risk and troubled youth.
“Horses have a way of calming people; they have a way of interacting with them, being able to pet them, but especially being able to ride them. It gives you a sense of achievement and you get a relationship with that animal,” said Butler.
Mansfield, who is also an occupational therapist, said therapeutic horsemanship provides “an incredibly sensory-rich environment” between the smells and the movement involved.
“So a lot of our kids that have trouble working in a traditional environment, this environment meets their needs for movement, input, smell, all those kinds of things where they might not be successful in a traditional environment,” she said.
Mansfield said a horse also mimics the human walk and riding one works the same muscles in humans that are required to walk, “so for a person that’s never had a normal walking gait, the horse can provide that passively, so we can provide that underneath everything else we do.”
“You intensely work your core when you’re on horseback,” she added.
Sophomore Emily Nathan, 19, said she began working with horses when she was 14 years old after horseback riding lessons became too expensive and she decided to volunteer at Pegasus Therapeutic Riding in Brewster.
She originally was just looking to volunteer in the barn at Pegasus – where she met Mansfield, who was working there at the time – but soon became involved with instructing the kids at the center.
“I completely fell in love with working with the kids,” she said. “People in the therapeutic horsemanship world are such nice people; everyone is so selfless because they’re all about helping people. It’s not like if you go to a show barn where everyone is so focused on showing and competing.”
Mansfield, who is also an occupational therapist, said therapeutic horsemanship is ideal for those with disabilities, regardless of age. Such programs help geriatric clients who have withdrawn from the world to come out and interact with something outside of themselves. In some cases, they even ride the horses.
Mansfield said therapeutic horsemanship programs are also helpful to stroke victims, those with cerebral palsy, those with autism, trauma victims, the blind, and especially combat veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Mansfield said she recently completed a program certifying veterans to work in therapeutic horsemanship and eight out of the ten veterans in the program “said they would’ve been dead by now if they hadn’t met a horse.”
Selecting the right horses for the program is crucial, said Mansfield, and horses owned by SUNY Cobleskill are chosen for different, and specific, programs. Only three out of the 45 horses at the school are suitable for riding in a therapeutic context, and another three are used in a non-riding capacity in the program.
“Temperament is of the utmost for us because obviously we need a horse that’s going to be OK with a lot of things that are not natural to them,” she said.
The horses are tested with toys, balls and rings and are put in unfamiliar situations that would spook most other horses. The animals must become acclimated to sudden movements, physical and verbal outbursts, and physical cues given unintentionally by those who are riding them.
“Some of the stuff we do goes against what their natural instincts are,” said Mansfield, “because we want to know everything about them before we put them in a scenario.”
Horses that have had previous exposure to unusual circumstances, such as those that have taken part in carnivals or parades, are ideal, she added.
Mansfield and Whelihan said the program, in its inaugural semester, is completely filled with about 15 students, most of whom came through internal transfers of SUNY Cobleskill students who were enrolled in other equine-related programs.
Mansfield and Whelihan hope to expand the program as interest increases and create relationships with other therapy programs, including veterans’ groups, across the state.
For more information on the therapeutic horsemanship program at SUNY Cobleskill, visit http://www.cobleskill.edu.
Reach Gazette reporter Dan Fitzsimmons at 852-9605, [email protected] or @DanFitzsimmons on Twitter.
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