Young lives limited by disabilities are expanding their horizons at North Shelby School through an innovative therapy program with an unusual tool - a horse.
The Cleveland County Hearts and Hooves, Inc. Therapeutic Riding Program is a model example of multiple service agencies and individual volunteers coming together to design, implement, and maintain a therapeutic riding program for students with disabilities. The program, operated on the campus of North Shelby School, focuses on skill attainment in the areas of communication, social skills, literacy, math, and riding skills. The program provides a unique therapeutic horseback riding program and currently serves children and young adults between the ages of 5 and 21 with a primary diagnosis of intellectual disability. In addition to cognitive disabilities, many of the students also have accompanying disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, hearing impairments, visual impairments and other health impairments (e.g. diabetes, heart conditions, asthma, etc.). The Hearts and Hooves Program is completely volunteer-driven and funded through community donations.
The Program was started because a parent of a child with a disability saw a need in the community to provide the opportunity to participate in a horseback riding program designed to meet individual needs. Program participants are students at North Shelby School (Shelby City School system), which is a public special purpose school serving students with disabilities from Shelby City Schools, Cleveland County Schools, and Kings Mountain Schools. The Program uses a multi-faceted approach in order to accommodate the wide range of student needs. The primary focus areas for programming include:
• Increasing the social and communication skills of students with autism
• Decreasing spasticity and improving the motor function of students with physical disabilities
• Improving academic skills of all students through the infusion of numeracy and literacy concepts into riding sessions
• Assisting students in developing the riding skills needed to pursue equestrian activities as a life-long avocation
Research shows that students who participate in therapeutic riding can experience physical, emotional and mental rewards. Because horseback riding gently and rhythmically moves the rider's body in a manner similar to a human gait, riders with physical disabilities often show improvement in flexibility, balance and muscle strength. Participation has increased vocabulary for some, as well as social skills, and helps develop gross and fine motor skills. Communication skills also improve, as the children learn to follow simple directions doing an activity they enjoy.
"I just think the program is a major plus for our children," said teacher Sandra Womack.
Hearts and Hooves is nationally accredited by Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), formerly North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA).