By Renée K. Gadoua
NY Horse Contributing Editor
Alice Root describes the relationship between horses and humans as magical and spiritual, with cultural roots as deep as ancient Greece
and Rome where mythology told of
half-human, half-horse centaurs.
“The horse is magnificent, beautiful,
responsive,” Root said. “In their eyes and
their movement, there are things the human
body just yearns for.”
Over two decades, she’s seen that
magical relationship unfold, first as a pioneer
in the use of equine therapy – more recently
as the recipient of that magic herself.
“I’ve seen children and adults who
have never spoken full sentences, maybe
even didn’t have words, speak for the first
time on the back of a horse,” Root said.
“I’ve seen parents undone by this.”
Her work began about 20 years ago,
when she started an equine-assisted therapy
program to help at-risk youth. She was breeding donkeys on her farm in Vernon Center at the time, and thought to put the animals and young people together.
“The effect of the animals on these kids was extraordinary,” Root said. “These children, who were used to manipulating their
environment, could no longer do
so. To communicate with a
donkey, you have to have a
conversation. You can’t use force.
You have to see what they want.”
Despite their headstrong
ways, donkeys are also very
affectionate, offering comfort and
attention to their young caretakers.
For the first time in their lives,
Root recalled, these kids had a
give-and-take relationship and
developed social skills.
As demand grew, the program expanded and moved to Verona, evolving once again when Root began to contemplate retirement and sought a permanent home for the work she’d begun. She found that home at Upstate Cerebral Palsy, where she was a long-time volunteer in the equine program.
Root Farm became an affiliate program of Upstate Caring Partners, Inc., which includes UCP, opening in October 2015 in Sauquoit, near Utica. The 100-plus acre campus includes an equine-assisted therapy center and vocational and recreational programs.
“It’s an incredibly uplifting experience to go there and see what is going on,” said Root, who serves on the farm’s nine-member board. The new Root Farm offers hippotherapy, adaptive and recreational riding and vaulting and has expanded to agricultural programs, producing flowers, vegetables, eggs, honey and maple syrup that are sold at local farmer’s markets.
“We really believed in the benefits of this treatment approach,” said Jeremy Earl, a physical therapist who is the farm’s executive director.
At the core of equine-assisted therapy is the way that the movement of a horse walking parallels the movement of the human pelvis. “If you have a person who cannot walk normally, or not at all, that person on the horse
is walking,” Root explained.
“The brain does not know the
difference. Walking is moving
at a very basic, instinctual
equestrians nor medical experts
can explain exactly how and
why, the walking motion
appears to have therapeutic
benefits. “In the walking
movement, the brain makes
certain connections we take
for granted as walkers,”
she said. “Who knows what happens in the brain that connects with other things that people with disabilities are not engaged with.”
Anecdotal evidence is strong, Earl agreed. “We have a gentleman with Parkinson’s who believes he continues to be independent because of hippotherapy,” he said. “Then there are people who say they just feel better when they leave here.”
For many stories, this would be the end. But then, about five years ago, Root was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which manifested primarily as balance and coordination problems. After years of preaching its benefits, Root herself looked to the healing power of horses.
“I knew at a gut level there is nothing better for balance issues than to be on the back of a horse,” she said. “I had a lifetime of experience to know it. I’ve probably been carrying this illness a long time. The fact that I’ve been on horseback all my life may be why it took so long for the illness to show itself.”
Her prescription: Spend as much time as possible in the saddle. She gave up pleasure driving and took up long-distance riding, spending six months in Florida so she can ride all year. She does a 50-mile endurance ride about every three weeks with Slammer – Comet’s Grand Slam, a purebred Arabian.
“You are with your horse for so long, with beautiful countryside, with rough terrain. There’s at least one overnight. You’re bonding with your horse. It’s wonderful.”
The long rides allow horses to do “what they’re born to do: to be wild and to move in a natural setting,” Root said. “The horses are exposed to a much more natural lifestyle than in a stable. This is a kind of freedom that I didn’t know.”
She’s conditioning three other horses, with the hope of taking on a 100-mile trip by the time she turns 65, in two years. “The horses have to build up the metabolism and muscle structure and endurance,” she explained. “The same goes for people.”
Since her diagnosis, her condition remains stable – a status she attributes to her time on horses. “When my body is in that saddle, there is nowhere in the world I would rather be,” she said. “It’s being in that moment exactly where I need to be. My body and my mind and my soul are so happy, and how grateful I am to have discovered that.”
And so there is this: Her health allows her to talk about the value of equine therapy from both a theoretical and personal perspective.
“I get to promote it from inside and out,” Root said. “That’s a gift for the program to say this really works. One hundred miles, here I come.”
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Combined Training as Art and Sport
NEW YORK HORSE
Promoting Reining in the Northeast
SUNY Cobleskill starts therapeutic horsemanship program
SUNY Cobleskill has launched the first therapeutic horsemanship degree program in New York. The four-year program, which started this fall, will lead to a Bachelor of Technology degree.
Students will study
a broad range of subjects,
from equine science to
education and psychology,
while working with other
students, volunteers, clients,
parents, teachers and
therapists through partnerships
with community organizations.
Through a combination of
coursework and hands-on
training, they’ll learn how
equine therapy uses
interaction with horses to
help people with special needs overcome physical, cognitive and emotional challenges.
The new program “weds a passion for equine studies with a drive to help others,” said SUNY Cobleskill President Dr. Marion A. Terenzio. “We’re proud to bring our expertise in horsemanship together with the humanities to offer this valuable new program in New York State,”
At the end of the four years, students will be prepared to pursue instructor certification with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), enter the field of equine therapy, or continue with graduate studies. SUNY Cobleskill faculty will assist students in obtaining “Instructor in Training” status through PATH, guide them to complete PATH-required mentoring hours on campus, and accompany students to off-site PATH certification exams.
The college is one of less than a dozen nationwide to offer certification by PATH International as part of a degree program.
in the degree program will
study in a variety of
academic areas, starting
with the foundations of
and then drawing on the
subjects of equine science,
sociology, recreation and
sport. Students will have
the opportunity to apply
their course work in
instruction in a client-based
setting every semester.
As part of the program students will also:
The therapeutic horsemanship program is based at the college’s Equine Center, which has stabling for 60 horses, an indoor arena, and two outdoor rings.
Students enrolled in the program also have the opportunity to enhance their riding and horsemanship skills by enrolling in riding and training courses and through participation in the Varsity Hunt Seat and Western IHSA riding teams.