Riding Therapy May Help the Disabled Rein In Their Limitations


For one hour each week, the dull, empty gaze that distances 16-year-old Chad Solomon from the world takes on fire and life.

The transformation starts as the autistic teenager mounts a fat, shaggy Belgian horse named Pete. It continues as Chad coaxes the horse into a trot and stands in the saddle like a circus performer, holding his balance with only a leather strap.

“Chad didn’t really seem to speak or react before he started riding, at least when I met him,” said Al Basile, a volunteer at Pegasus Riding Academy, a nonprofit therapy center. “He doesn’t walk normally, but when he’s up there on the horse, you wouldn’t know it.”


Chad is among hundreds of disabled people who have ridden at Pegasus since its founding in 1982 and among many thousands seeking help every year through riding therapy, also known as hippotherapy.

Success stories are legion, dating back to Liz Hartel of Denmark, who won a silver medal at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki after overcoming paralysis from polio.

Carol Tatum founded Pegasus with her husband, Richard, after closing a mainstream riding school.

“I was near burnout and disenchanted with riders who only cared about their accomplishments,” she said.

With Pegasus, she feels a deep satisfaction.

“I really appreciate the connection the riders I teach now have with the horses. It’s very spiritual,” Tatum said. “They need the horses, physically and mentally, as much as the horses need them.”

Tatum forces the riders to push themselves, yelling at youngsters to gain control of wandering horses and cheering when they do.


A $27-per-session fee covers the cost of housing, feeding and training Pegasus’ 12 horses and maintaining the stables, indoor arena and offices. The buildings are on property owned by the city’s park commission, which leases the land to Pegasus for $1 a year.

The animals, ranging from racehorses past their prime to Amish farm horses, are donated and put through a strict screening process. Fund-raisers, private donations and government grants pay other expenses.

Therapeutic riding improves muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination, motor development and emotional and psychological well-being, according to the Denver-based North American Riding for the Handicapped Assn., which has more than 525 affiliates in the United States and Canada.

More than 25,000 riders take part in therapy programs with the help of 1,250 instructors, 19,500 volunteers, 840 licensed therapists and 3,700 horses, the organization says.

But those numbers aren’t the ones that count for an industry that could open the treatment to many more handicapped people.

“It’s scientifically untested and unscientifically proven,” said Donna Gerhauser, a spokeswoman for Prudential Insurance Co. of America.


Gerhauser said most insurance companies will not cover the therapy because “it’s not medically necessary.”

Terry Long of Bryn Mawr’s Rehabilitation Hospital believes a lack of education prevents insurance companies, doctors, therapists and some patients from taking riding therapy seriously.

“Insurance companies and doctors want to see the numbers to back up all the success stories,” Long said. “There may be changes in the patients, but they won’t connect it to the fact that they’ve been riding for the last two weeks.”

For many Pegasus riders, the benefit may be in mounting the horse or simply getting a chance to pet and feed Pete--the gentle favorite among the youngest and newest riders.

“When your life is that set and controlled, it’s incredible to do anything on your own,” said Esther Chernak, a staff nurse at Pegasus. “You’re doing something many nonhandicapped people can’t.

“The physical part is just as important. . . ,” she said. “[Riding] forces them to use muscles that are lax and not toned, like people in wheelchairs tend to get.”


Chernak speaks from experience. The former hospital nurse was found to have multiple sclerosis in the fall of 1985, and started doing physical therapy to stretch her joints on her doctor’s recommendation.

Pegasus, she said, helped her regain her physical abilities.

A volunteer for almost four years, Basile said he doesn’t know much about the disabilities that bring the patients to Pegasus.

“Once you’re on the horse, it doesn’t really matter,” he said.

As Basile sees it, stroke victim Bill Pokorny is “just like John Wayne up in the saddle--sitting high and tall.”

Pokorny, 64, a former bartender, is Pegasus’ oldest rider. His wife, Nancy, a psychiatric nurse, introduced him to the center as a birthday present.

Seven years after Nancy’s gift, the couple has seen a boost in Bill Pokorny’s self-confidence and physical capability. Even without the use of his right hand--paralyzed after the stroke--he is not only riding regularly, but square-dancing, swimming and even rock-climbing.

“From a nursing and personal perspective, I would recommend it as a great thing for anybody with a disability, physical or mental,” Nancy Pokorny said. “We’ve told lots of people about Pegasus.”