The Marion Therapeutic Riding Association (mtraocala.org) provides an open-air instruction platform for novice horseback riders. Being located in Ocala, Florida's horse country provides the association with an adequate number of volunteers to maintain its function. The riding association's primary program meets the developmental needs of both physically and mentally handicapped children, improving their stability and self esteem. Children leave the program feeling a connection to the animals and more confidence in their own abilities.
In 1983, the Marion Therapeutic Riding Association (MTRA) program was launched on a private farm and operated by unpaid volunteers to help physically and mentally disabled persons learn to ride horses. Two years after its inception, MTRA's program was recognized as advantageous to children and was incorporated into the curriculum of the Hillcrest School for the Exceptional Student. The school expanded MTRA's mission by providing six acres of land for rider training. Staff instructors teach courses in equine therapy to students at Central Florida Community College, and MTRA is developing other academic relationships in the area.
The MTRA does not have age restrictions for its clients. The association trains children as young as 4 years old and has a separate program for war veterans. The center's instructors and volunteers have worked with children with autism, spinal cord injuries, Down's syndrome, attention deficit disorder, stroke complications, head trauma, limb loss, paralysis and multiple sclerosis.
Kate Robbins, the program director for MTRA, has pointed out that disabled clients gain many physical benefits from horseback riding. Among these are improvements in balance, gait, core and torso strength, hand-eye coordination and flexibility. The center's behavioral therapist, Nancy LeFavre, notes that children with speech disabilities connect instinctively with horses, because the horses are also non-verbal. She adds that additional cognitive and mental benefits include improved memory and self-confidence. An autistic child who never spoke before entering the program was heard uttering the horse's name. A wheelchair-bound child walked after riding a horse.
The Marion Therapeutic Riding Association has over 200 volunteers specially trained by instructors certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (pathintl.org) to teach disabled children how to ride and supervise their progress. A volunteer leader holds the reins from the front end of the horse while a child is riding. The leader fully controls the movement of the horse for rider safety. Volunteers walk and run on each side of a mounted horse and carry out instructions of the leaders.
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