How Therapeutic Horseback Riding Programs Help Vets, Children

Restorative riding programs give a new lease on life for certain Mississippi residents.
Cassie Courts Brunson is an Extension associate and 4-H Therapeutic Riding coordinator at the Elizabeth A. Howard 4-H Therapeutic Riding and Activity Center. Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto

Serving veterans and children with special needs in Mississippi’s Golden Triangle area, the Elizabeth A. Howard 4-H Therapeutic Riding and Activity Center (TRAC) in West Point has been changing lives through equine-assisted therapy programs since 2010. The facility was made possible by a $300,000 donation from Brenda and Tommy Howard – parents of Elizabeth, TRAC’s namesake. After seeing the many benefits horseback riding offered their daughter, including increased physical abilities and newfound confidence, the couple wanted her to ride as often as possible. According to Cassie Courts Brunson, Extension associate and 4-H Therapeutic Riding coordinator, Elizabeth’s experience isn’t uncommon, and she says nearly every person who engages in TRAC’s programs sees physical, emotional and psychological improvements. 

“The bond that our participants develop with their horses is so powerful and can be incredibly healing,” Brunson says. “Plus, being on a horse is a very physical, strenuous activity, and it can help build muscle strength because the rider’s arms, legs and core are engaged the entire time. That’s helpful for everyone, especially those who have limited mobility. It’s also an empowering experience because it gives riders a chance to be in control of a 1,200-pound animal, which they may have never done before, and that boosts their confidence and self-esteem. It’s amazing to witness.” 

Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto

Facilitating Healing in Unique Ways

Having earned premier accreditation status through PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship), TRAC offers 10-week therapeutic riding lessons Monday through Thursday during the fall and spring, as well as a six-week session in the summer. 

The Veterans Horsemanship program, established in 2016 and open to both active-duty and retired veterans, includes five weeks of groundwork training – teaching participants to communicate with and groom their horses, which also helps them build bonds with the animals – and five weeks of riding on the trails near the arena. 

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“It’s such a freeing, liberating experience to be on your horse outside, enjoying the fresh air,” Brunson says. “We want this to be a time when our veterans can come and relax and not worry about anything, and we find that this environment often brings about emotional healing in a way that’s hard to replicate elsewhere.” 

TRAC’s program for children, serving those ages 4 to 18 with disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, also includes groundwork lessons and the opportunity to ride their horses in the arena and on the outdoor trails with varying levels of assistance. 

Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto

Brunson and her team teach the children a new riding skill each week, and they often create activities to be completed on horseback to ensure the kids are staying engaged and interested. 

“Many parents of the children who participate in our program tell me they see amazing improvements in their kids’ communication and speech skills after they’ve ridden with us,” Brunson says. “Some of our participants are also receiving medical treatments during the time they’re seeing us, and parents often say their children are more motivated to go in the hospital and get those treatments because they know they get to come see their horse and ride once they’re finished.” 

Support Helps TRAC Grow and Thrive

TRAC, a program through the Mississippi State University Extension Service, is also supported by Mississippi State University’s School of Human Sciences and Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences, along with the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation. In addition, TRAC has a dedicated team of volunteers and interns, many of whom are MSU students, who believe in the program and are doing their part to ensure it remains successful. 

“We wouldn’t be able to make such a big impact without the support of our community,” Brunson says. “We are so fortunate to be partners with Mississippi State University, and we absolutely could not do this without our incredible volunteers.” 

Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto

Going forward, Brunson says TRAC plans to focus on growing its Veterans Horsemanship program while continuing to serve children with special needs across the Golden Triangle, and she encourages anyone interested in TRAC’s programs to come see them in action. 

“Horses have an innate ability to read people, and they seem to always know what we need,” Brunson says. “Spending time with horses can be comforting and nurturing as well as challenging and empowering. It’s hard to explain, but when you see it for yourself, you can’t deny how powerful the experience is.” 

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