Parsons, Kansas —
Horses have long been credited for being beneficial to those with a wide array of disabilities. These positive benefits have helped prompt efforts to include disabled riders in horse shows.
Ben Johnson, Arkansas City, is an always-smiling example of how important equine interaction can be to those with disabilities.
The grin becomes wider, and is accompanied by a “thumbs up,” as the 22-year-old horseman, born with a development disorder, had his name called as results were announced after the Equestrians with Disabilities (EWD) class during the American Quarter Horse Association Show at the 2013 Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson.
“Highlight of Ben’s life is riding his bay mare, Lily, in these shows,” Ben’s dad, Steve Johnson, said.
“The classes help build Ben’s motor skills and level of concentration,” explained Johnson.
With disabilities typical of autism, and deprived coordination, Ben’s physical and mental skills can only reach a certain limited level. However, riding and working with all aspects of his horses are credited with sharply enhancing the development.
Johnson, his wife, Arlene and their daughter, Renee Freund would always lead the horses when Ben was riding, until the South Central Stock Horse Association (SCSHA) added the EWD class to a show.
“Riders had to ride independently, so Ben began riding unassisted. We could see that it improved his level of concentration, and reduced internal and external distractions,” Johnson said.
Classes require participants to memorize a set pattern and ride their horses through the maneuvers like turning left, right and backing.
While Ben’s concentration has greatly improved, the competition includes those with various levels of disabilities, and he can still become distracted.
“Ben enjoys himself, is very personable and making friends. He’s one of the happiest exhibitors at every show.”
Since year-end awards are based on accumulated points — and Ben seldom misses a show — he’s collected several trophy buckles.
“He really likes his buckles, and it makes us proud too,” Johnson said.
For Ben to be able to ride, it takes the right horse. One named, Missie, who has not only helped Ben, but has gone on to another family needing a suitable horse for a rider with disabilities.
“She is a perfect babysitter. When Ben would get lopsided in the saddle, Missie would just move right under him,” Johnson added.
During her 4-H career, Freund rode and trained a number of top show horses, including Lily, who is now Ben’s mount.
“Lily was just three-years-old, but Ben clicked perfectly with her; she’s eight now,” Johnson explained.
“It’s my opinion there are certain bloodlines more suitable to becoming horses for those with disabilities,” Johnson claimed.
“These are very smart horses, and they want to take care of their riders, so to speak.”
There is an increasing number of handicapped and therapeutic riding programs in the Midwest making for large entries in some of the EWD classes at horse shows, with 14 entries not uncommon.
The American Quarter Horse Association Equestrians with Disabilities program is open to people with physical or mental disabilities.
There are eight classes including showmanship at halter, walk /trot hunt seat equitation on the flat, walk/trot/canter hunt seat equitation, walk/jog Western horsemanship, walk/jog/lope Western horsemanship, walk/jog trail, advanced showmanship and advanced trail.
Each entry must have a handler to help with the safety of the rider. Judging criteria consists of rider’s balance, rider’s seat, use of aids, ability to follow directions, ring etiquette, safety and sportsmanlike conduct.
Ben competes in Western tack in EWD showmanship, EWD walk/jog horsemanship and EWD walk/jog trail.
“Ben’s balance and coordination are insufficiently developed for him to lope more than a few strides, thus preventing him from riding in the three gaited classes, yet,” Johnson said.
While there are only EWD classes for independent riders, Johnson would like to see additions where competitors can be assisted during the show, whether horseback or on-foot.
“Now, the therapeutic riding groups often just bring the competitors who can ride independently, but by adding assisted-riding competitions, twice as many participants could ride, with the same number of horses from one organization,” Johnson said.
“We do know the positive therapeutic effect that horses can have on physical and mental disabilities for all levels and all ages. We want to help and encourage their development with horses in every way we can,” he concluded. £