Taylor Studniski shares the joy of helping children with disabilities experience the joy of horseback riding.

Working with children with disabilities is valuable for both the participant and the provider of services as the experience provides new skills and social insights for both parties. For Taylor Studniski, volunteering with local ministries focused on equine-assisted services offered a unique opportunity to grow and learn about the benefits of horse riding for children with disabilities and techniques for safe assistance.

Horseback riding for children with disabilities

Horseback riding has existed as a form of physical and emotional therapy for decades and beyond. However, its value has been underrecognized in more formal academic studies until recently. In 2017, the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation published a review of 16 studies on horseback riding and related therapies. Across the studies, it was established that participants saw improvements in balance, muscle symmetry, psychosocial health, motor function, quality of life, and more after participating in therapeutic riding activities. The journal review, Therapeutic Effects of Horseback Riding Interventions: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis, also cited the need for additional research in this area.

The review provides validation for the experiences Taylor Studniski and other volunteers and workers in equine-assisted services provide for disabled children every day. It also documents the real changes the children in their care experience in multiple areas of their life.

“For these children, engaging in social, physical, and mental activities are crucial to their overall growth,” Taylor Studniski said.

With horseback riding therapy, a variety of people work to assist the child. During the actual lesson, these can include both a horse leader to control the horse used in therapy and a sidewalker. The walker stays beside the horse during the riding period and continuously monitors the rider and observes best safe practices throughout a lesson. The sidewalker is also a companion ready to lend physical support and motivation on a tough day. 

Taylor Studniski has volunteered as a sidewalker at two local equine-assisted ministries over the past several years and also filled other roles at the sites. However, she has a particular fondness for the time spent as a sidewalker.

Taylor Studniski outlines hold techniques

As a sidewalker, keeping a child safely mounted on the horse is a primary consideration. Studniski reports she would help riders climb on the horse and then assist as it traveled around a riding rink or down a designated walking trail when the rider was ready. While walking or jogging, a hold is frequently maintained on the rider to provide additional security.

“For example, I might just hold the rider’s ankle or lower thigh for certain obstacles that have been set up in the rink, or I might just follow alongside the horse and rider if they are simply walking,” Studniski explained.

Volunteering for equine-assisted services requires training in proper techniques and a demonstrated ability to connect with riders and work alongside other support personnel, including the horse leader.