Brain Health//

#50MillionFaces with Shelby Morrison on Therapeutic Riding

'Like humans, horses are highly intuitive, social animals.'

Ann Romney: Shelby, thank you so much for agreeing to chat with me. Tell us about and your team at Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program.
Shelby Morrison: Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program (NVTRP), is a non-profit 501(c) (3) organization accredited by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl), located in Clifton, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. Inspired by the effectiveness of therapeutic riding in helping military personnel recovering from a range of physical and mental health issues, especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), NVTRP has developed a robust program for recovering service members, people with disabilities, youth-at-risk, and others in need in an inclusive, community setting. In 2017 alone, NVTRP served 118 military servicemen and women recovering from mental health issues.

AR: Why do you think horses are such effective therapists?
SM: Like humans, horses are highly intuitive, social animals. They readily pick up on rider’s body language and mood. Unlike humans, however, horses are non-judgmental and don’t “fake it.”These traits make horses powerful therapists. They give immediate, honest feedback in a non-threatening environment, helping riders address a range of physical and mental health issues. Time and time again at the NVTRP, riders who have not responded to traditional, clinical-based therapies blossom as they work with their trusted equine partners.A lot of our patients are working on learning to trust other people and how to build emotional connections, and working with the horses is a perfect modality for that. It’s a big deal for our patients to learn to let their guard down and be real, and the horses provide the perfect opportunity to practice those skills. I think any animal-based therapies are great for our population

AR: What is involved your program?
SM: All of the military riders participate in small group lessons that focus on both riding skills and horsemanship activities, such as grooming and training the equines. Under the supervision of a PATH-certified instructor and supported as needed by up to three volunteers per rider, recovering military riders are encouraged to go outside their comfort zones.

AR: What sort of person tends to seek out therapeutic riding?
SM: One of those riders is Jeannine McDonald (United States Air Force), who started with the program in 2014. She told us that she started looking into therapeutic riding when she was at her lowest point. She didn’t enjoy anything and was in a great deal of pain and was advised to come up with anything she could do to make herself happy and her first love had always been horses. She told us: “The first time I got on a horse, I couldn’t keep from crying. It was the first time I felt good in a very long time. It became the one thing I looked forward to every week. I’ve seen improvement in my confidence, sense of well-being and acceptance, increased core strength, calmness, breaking interpersonal blocks, better posture. I can feel good, happy even, when I’m there with the horses.” 100% of all NVTRP military riders surveyed said “yes” the riding session benefited their mental health.

AR: What are the costs involved to participate?
SM: Recovering military personnel pay no fees to participate in NVTRP’s programs. NVTRP raises the full cost of their participation from private fundraising.

AR: Thank you for sharing a bit of your story with us. Where can readers go to learn more about NVTRP?
SM: They can go to

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