How Riding And Working With Horses Can Impact People

Mary Jane DeCarlo/Fourth Estate


By Huong Cao, Staff Writer

On Nov. 2, students in George Mason’s Department of Social Work gathered to discover something many may not have heard before – “How Riding and Working With Horses Can Impact People”. Wendy Baird, the development director of Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program shared her insights about what she considers a “fast-growing discipline” with students considering careers in nonprofits.

According to their website, Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program (NVTRP) is a nonprofit organization that uses equestrian-based services to help people with disabilities, at-risk-youth, and recovering military service personnel. According to Baird, the organization mostly provides services to kids with disabilities, although they also serve adults.

“Kids come for small group riding lessons. A group can be from two to four members and the therapeutic benefits are coming from the riding process,” she added.

Baird shared that it is easier to quantify the physical impacts, which last long after a fifteen-minute lesson. However, what she has heard about most often from parents are the social and emotional benefits.

“Kids with disabilities are often isolated but a horse is very empathetic,” Baird said.

In addition to services for kids, NVTRP partnered with a local military installation and provided therapeutic riding services to active duty services members. Leaving the base can cause anxiety for soldiers and riding with horses makes them feel relaxed enough to let down their guard and enjoy things.

The life-changing experience NVTRP offers individuals is a reason why it has such a low turnover and a long waiting list. Even though the organization tries to accommodate all needs, not all horses can be used for therapy.

“Horses are carefully chosen to meet the needs of each individual. Some people need a stubborn horse. Others need a very gentle, forgiving horse,” Baird said.

Due to the long waiting list, the organization does not take riders from the community. But volunteers are welcomed. Instructors must go through a certification process required by Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. But Vicky Kirsch, the director of Mason’s Master of Social Work program shared: “To be a side walker, you do not need to know everything. They will teach you.”

Being around horses provides a sense of peace. For any student who loves horses, volunteering with NVTRP could be an ideal stress reliever.  Zahra Bakhsh, a student in Mason’s Master of Social Work program said, “you may not be able to attend a therapeutic session but you can go to places where they offer riding lessons and incorporate that experience because it is a great way to de-stress. Just riding horses and you feel so much better about life. I really like that.”

Illustration by Mary Jane DeCarlo