Therapy through horsemanship

caldwellAbout a year and a half ago, the only experience School of Social Work Associate Professor Paul Caldwell had with horses was on a few trail rides.

Today, Caldwell can tack up, trot and wield a hoof pick—and most importantly, help others learn the joy of riding and connecting with horses. His proficiency developed through his work as a volunteer with From the Ground Up Therapeutic Horsemanship, a nonprofit organization that teaches riding skills and horse-related activities to individuals with cognitive, physical, emotional, social and learning disabilities.

“These activities on horseback are very therapeutic; they help build core strength, they build muscle memory and they help improve cognitive skills through structured activities, such as retrieving items in the arena and going through the riding course,” Caldwell says.

The results quickly become clear.

“It’s remarkable to see the progress of individuals who arrive at the barn and may have fairly obvious challenges—how they walk or how they interact—and then you see them on their horses,” Caldwell says. “They are directing the horse, trotting and some even posting, which is a more advanced riding skill—they can become quite accomplished. And they are lovely people; I just enjoy being with them.”

Caldwell works as both a side walker and a horse leader with the students at the From the Ground Up facility, part of a working farm in New Woodstock, about 30 miles south of Syracuse.

Side walkers attend to the safety of the riders by helping to stabilize less steady riders and help position the rider and reinforce the teacher’s instructions. Horse leaders direct the horse through the lesson.

From the Ground Up is a premier accredited program of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. Andrea Colella, director of From the Ground Up, is the certified riding instructor who tailors each student’s program to his or her abilities.

“There may be a rider who needs to strengthen their core, so horseback riding very naturally allows you to adjust to the horse’s movement and strengthen those muscles,” Caldwell says. For example, students may be instructed to ride without holding the reins and their bodies naturally respond to stabilize themselves.

Caldwell also sees the confidence level improve in the students, who include 4- and 5-year-olds from the Jowonio School, a nonprofit preschool in Syracuse for children of various abilities. “We got feedback from parents who said that some kids who had been more cautious and less outgoing became more adventuresome in positive ways,” he says. “It gives students a sense of pride when they are riding a big, powerful animal.”

Caldwell started at From the Ground Up in the summer of 2011 when he and his wife signed up their daughter Evelyn, who enjoys animals, to volunteer. He soon decided to volunteer too, and by the time summer was over and his daughter was going back to school, he decided to stay on. “By then I was hooked,” says Caldwell, who is also a member of the organization’s board of directors.

Along with his work with riders, Caldwell helps feed and groom the horses twice a week and also takes riding lessons with Colella. He also assists Colella in promoting the Horses for Heroes Program, which offers the therapeutic lessons to military personnel who might be dealing with physical injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder. The program, which partners with the Syracuse VA Hospital for funding support, is seeking to increase the number of veterans involved and also include military members as volunteers who will work with their fellow soldiers.

For Caldwell, volunteering with From the Ground Up is beneficial on many levels.

“You can help another human being, someone with special needs, and you’re supporting an organization that provides this service, which is completely dependent on volunteers,” says Caldwell, who teaches the courses "Alcohol and Other Drugs in Social Work Practice" and "Persons in Social Context." “It’s also therapeutic for me—both through my riding and working with horses, and especially working with the riders.”

For more information on From the Ground Up, visit www.ftguhorses.org.