It took Karla Kimbrough a few minutes and some coaxing to step from an elevated ramp in an airy horse barn and swing her leg over Chester, a Fjord-Welsh pony cross known for his calm demeanor.
“Give me your hand, sweetheart,” her mother, Pam Kimbrough said, standing on Chester’s right side, and her daughter finally did before mounting from his left.
Kimbrough has trouble crossing thresholds – even moving from one color on a patterned floor to another – said her mother. It was a small moment earlier this month, but a big one the first time Kimbrough, who’s 28 and lives in a South Hill group home for people with developmental disabilities, got on a horse at Free Rein Therapeutic Riding.
“We never thought she’d do it,” Pam Kimbrough said. “It took a village to get her on the first time.”
Adaptation to riders’ needs – whether it takes a tall ramp, a modified saddle or extra time to get on a horse – is at the center of the nonprofit organization’s mission. Free Rein is a recreational riding organization in southwest Spokane for people with physical or developmental disabilities.
It’s also an example of an emerging field of research called human-animal interaction that seeks to measure the health effects of animals on people – whether that’s through therapeutic programs like Free Rein or the loving feeling you get from petting your dog (that’s the oxytocin talking, according to one study).
Out of ‘fringe status’
The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International has more than 800 member centers, including Free Rein – most of them in the U.S. and Canada – after steady growth over the past few years. Those centers work with more than 42,000 people with disabilities a year.
Many of those centers have growing wait lists, said Cher Smith, a spokeswoman for PATH International, based in Denver.
In general, the use of animals for educational or therapeutic purposes “has just increased in popularity incredibly,” said Patricia Pendry, an assistant professor of human development at Washington State University in Pullman. “With that comes the question: Does it really work?”
There’s a sense among researchers that it does, she said, but the evidence has been largely anecdotal or a result of poor-quality research.
Pendry and other WSU researchers are near the end of a two-year study whose early results found that working with horses helped improved children’s social skills and reduce their stress and anxiety.
Their project, called PATH to Success (unrelated to PATH International), brings together horses and learning, as opposed to what Free Rein offers, called “therapeutic horsemanship.”
But both fall into the human-animal interaction field – a line of research the National Institutes of Health, which funded her study, is trying to bring out of “fringe status,” Pendry said.
The NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has entered a public-private partnership to study the interaction between people and animals – especially as it relates to “child development, health, and the therapeutic use of animals with children and adolescents,” according to the NIH.
Among the partnership’s goals is to “build an empirical research base” on whether the use of animals for therapy is safe and effective.
At the same time, the American Psychological Association is launching a new peer-reviewed online journal, Human Animal Interaction, devoted to research on the topic. The results of Pendry’s study are tentatively scheduled to appear in its first issue, this summer.
The field is “somewhat in its infancy,” said Nancy Gee, the new journal’s co-editor and a researcher at State University of New York at Fredonia in western New York. “It’s been around for about 25 years, but it seems to be really taking off, particularly with the attention of these federally funded grants.”
Gee’s research focuses on interactions between preschoolers and dogs. She’s found that the presence of trained dogs in their classrooms helps improve preschoolers’ cognition and motor skills.
Work that ‘feels like fun’
Free Rein is among a handful of organizations in the Inland Northwest that offer therapeutic riding. Some offer hippotherapy, in which therapists use horses as tools to meet patients’ physical, speech or occupational therapy goals. It’s supposed to be work.
Free Rein, on the other hand, aims to teach riding skills to people with disabilities. It’s supposed to be fun.
The results for riders, however, are often similar: improved core strength, better balance, improved communication skills, sharper focus.
Sandy Jones, the organization’s director, has photos on her phone of Karla Kimbrough’s first ride. She is smiling broadly.
“You know that she wanted to do it, but she just couldn’t bring herself to,” Jones said on a recent day as Kimbrough and two other riders in a class from the Arc of Spokane – each flanked by volunteers – followed instructions to raise one arm, then the other, as their horses circled the ring.
About a third of its 58 riders have autism, and another third have cerebral palsy, Jones said. Many others have “global developmental delay” or other disabilities. The riders are as young as 3.
While riding “feels like fun to them,” the riders are working, Jones said.
The horses’ constant movement requires riders to adjust constantly. The riders are “firing muscles that they wouldn’t use at any other time,” she said.
For those with autism, a bouncier horse is often better than one with a smooth gait, Jones said. That’s because they crave sensory input, she said.
“There’s something about the movement of a horse that helps them to focus,” she said.
Each rider is accompanied by a leader, who helps guide the horse, and one or two “side walkers,” who help riders work through directions issued by instructor Lisa Johnson, a former behavioral specialist who worked with special education students in the Central Valley School District.
Pam Kimbrough, who lives in Spokane Valley, noted her daughter’s smile as Kimbrough and Chester left the barn for a walk in the sunshine.
“That’s a bugs-in-your-teeth grin,” she said.