Taking the reins

Kristine Corn

Photo By Larry Dalton

With Kristine Corn ’s help, kids who can barely walk are making great strides. Corn founded Ride to Walk (www.ridetowalk.org), a program in which disabled children ride horses as part of their treatment. Corn, who has a doctorate in physical therapy, started off by leading patients up and down a driveway on a pony. The program now boasts sprawling grounds in Lincoln, where 45 children ride 12 horses weekly, assisted by 150 volunteers.

What is therapeutic riding, and how does it work?

Therapeutic horseback riding is basically a big tool: the horse. What we do is we use the movement of the horse to cause the child to have to respond, to use their body more appropriately. So, they get stronger. They also get mobility that they often don’t have.

In the clinic, you can work on these things. But if we can do therapy on the horse, then [the children] think they’re playing. And they’re getting stronger.

Tell me about some of the emotional benefits.

This is a thousand-pound-plus animal. To be able to sit on that, which is way up off the ground, some of the children are taking the reins in their hand, and they’re actually beginning to learn to control the horse. What you’re teaching is really wonderful self-esteem.

Is there a certain bond that develops between the rider and the horse?

Absolutely. These children know who their horse is. Every once in a while, a horse will get sick or have a bad leg, and we have to change the horse, and it’s sometimes traumatic—"Where’s my horse?"—and we have to explain, and they’re accepting of it.

I really do believe that these horses know that they’re doing a special job with these children. They’re very patient. They’re very kind. They’re very caring. A lot of times, they’re carrying a body on them that doesn’t sit very symmetrically. Most of the time, horses don’t like that. Our horses don’t complain. And sometimes, you’ll even see them shift their weight so that it helps the rider get back in place. It’s amazing.

What individuals benefit most from this type of therapy?

Our children in this particular program are all neurologically impaired. So, that means that we have children with cerebral palsy, near-drownings, car accidents, genetic disorders. We’ve got a lot of autistic children out here, too.

They do not perceive their body in the same way. Their postures are often very slumped, and they don’t process sensory information really well.

Out on the horse, we’re asking for that child to bring every aspect of their being into consciousness. And the central nervous system then begins to process that information differently, and it begins to make more sense. A lot of our children have started talking better. Behavior improves with autistic children. It’s fascinating.

Could you describe a typical session?

There’s a horse leader, somebody who has a horse background. And we have two side-walkers, one on either side of the child. I or another therapist will be out here, and we direct the activities that we want the child to do. They start out with warm-up activities, like stretching. As that progresses, and if the child is capable, we’ll go up to a trot. The young man that was here earlier, who is blind and has [cerebral palsy], was actually able to ride today at a trot with his hands on his thighs, not holding on to the saddle. Now, would you be willing to do that? You can’t see where you’re going, you have to trust the horse, you have to trust your side-walkers, and you’re going at a fast trot.

How did you get involved with therapeutic riding?

Being a physical therapist, I treated children in a clinic for a long time. I had some children that I realized weren’t doing much else but getting up in the morning, being placed in their wheelchair, going off to school, staying in their wheelchair all day, coming home, being placed in front of the TV, and that’s their life. It made me sad because that’s not a life for a child. That’s how I really got involved, because I’m not a horse person—initially. I have learned a lot.

What kind of support do you get from the community?

The support we get from the community is donations, and we’re always in need of financial support. We’re looking for horse and child sponsorships right now. It costs us about $1,200 a year for a horse. It costs us $6,000 a year to ride one child.

What’s next for Ride to Walk?

The next thing is really developing the rest of the facility out here. I have visions of getting a campsite, tent cabins, so that these children can come out and have the same joys of going camping like other children. I would like to open it up so that any of the handicapped in the community can do that. The goal is that we can be a large recreational area for handicapped people.