The Term ‘Horse Therapy’ and Why I Don’t Use It.

“Horse therapy” is a term I generally avoid using, primarily because it often implies that the therapy is conducted by a doctor or a licensed professional, which I am not. Despite this, the term is widely used in various contexts. This became particularly evident to me when I observed a request for ‘horse therapy’ recommendations in a large Facebook group. The responses included several local programs offering a range of services. But it led me to wonder: what exactly was the individual seeking? The benefits that horses provide are diverse and numerous, and the term ‘horse therapy’ can encompass a broad spectrum of activities and outcomes.

    In our industry we use the term ‘Equine Assisted Services’, which encompasses several distinct practices:

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy:

  • This is conducted by a licensed mental health therapist in the presence of horses, typically involving groundwork. These services may be covered by insurance.


  • Often focused on physical therapy performed by a licensed therapist using horses, this can also include occupational or speech therapy. While some programs may cater to specific disabilities, others might employ only one type of licensed therapist. These services may also be covered by insurance.
  • These programs also have a larger accommodation for physical disabilities than other programs may have. For example, wheelchair ramps, which we at Empowering Strides do not.

Therapeutic Riding:

  • This is a recreational activity aimed at improving the cognitive, physical, emotional, and/or social well-being of riders, usually those with disabilities. 
  • These programs may have a certain focus or population that they work with. At Empowering Strides our focus is 4-18 year old’s with cognitive, behavioral or emotional challenges. Although riding has physical benefits, that is not our primary focus.
  • Best practice is for instructors to be certified and many insurance companies are now requiring this. The two major certification programs are The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) and Certified Horsemanship Association. Empowering Strides instructors are PATH certified.

Equine Assisted Learning:

  • This experiential learning approach focuses on developing social, emotional, and life skills. Programs vary greatly, ranging from academic subjects like reading and math to professional skill development like team building.

  • There are a vast variety of programs from reading and math to team building and professional groups. Like all equine assisted services, each program may specialize or focus on a certain population or learning style.

Given the diversity of these programs and their specializations, accurate recommendations require detailed understanding. For example, if your 16-year-old with a traumatic brain injury needs speech therapy, a program offering equine assisted learning wouldn’t be suitable. Similarly, for someone suffering from trauma due to domestic violence needing equine assisted psychotherapy, therapeutic horseback riding or Empowering Strides might not be the best fit. For a 6yr old Autistic child working on social and emotional development, therapeutic riding like Empowering Strides offers, would be a great fit.

    For recommendations tailored to specific equine assisted services, please email me at Include a brief description of your service needs, and I’ll connect you with a program that can best accommodate your requirements.
    -Laura Ambrose Gorcester

2020 DDA Scholarships!

We are so excited to announce that we have received a grant from Jordan Fund for the second year! This will allow us to offer scholarships to cover the cost difference for rider’s with DDA/DSHS funding.

The payment structure for our services does not adequately cover our cost and therefore, we have been unable to accept riders with DDA/DSHS funding. This grant has given us the opportunity to cover that gap and allow us to accept riders!

Last year worked out very well, so we have decided that we will do the same structure and divide the grant to give three different riders a scholarship for ten lessons each. To qualify for this scholarship you must have funding and available hours. Your case manager will have to confirm this before any scholarship money is used. As well, the Jordan Fund requires that this grant money be used for children with ‘permanent and significant’ disabilities.

BUT WAIT! This #GivingTuesday we were able to raise $560! That means, we are able to offer a FOURTH scholarship this year! We want to send a huge thank you to everyone who donated and shared our fundraiser.

Applications will be closing on Sunday, December 29th.

To apply for a scholarship follow this link to our Google survey:


To learn more about the Jordan Fund visit their website:

Accepting Applications for DDA/DSHS Scholarships!

I am so excited to announce that we have received a grant from Jordan Fund that will allow us to offer scholarships to cover the cost difference for rider’s with DDA/DSHS funding.

The payment structure for our services does not adequately cover our cost and therefore, I have been unable to accept riders with DDA/DSHS funding. This grant has given us the opportunity to cover that gap and allow us to accept some riders!

Our Board of Directors has decided that we will divide the grant to give three different riders a scholarship for ten lessons each. To qualify for this scholarship you must have funding and available hours. Your case manager will have to confirm this before any scholarship money is used. As well, the Jordan Fund requires that this grant money be used for children with ‘permanent and significant’ disabilities.

Applications will be closing on Wednesday, March 20th.

To apply for a scholarship follow this link to our Google survey:


To learn more about the Jordan Fund visit their website:

To Talk Or Not To Talk

Last weekend I had the pleasure of having my brother Jason and his girlfriend Whitney assisting with lessons for the first time. It’s always a treat to hear new perspectives on my teaching, especially from someone who doesn’t have experience with therapeutic horseback riding. After the day’s lessons concluded, Jason, Whitney, one of our weekly volunteers, Grace, and I had a great discussion.

The one topic that felt the most important was when to talk to the rider and when to give the rider time to process what’s going on around them. Some might mistake the lulls in communication as gaps in instruction or a lack of lesson planning; however, these lulls serve a purpose. The majority of children that we work with are on the Autism 13413052_540721832801175_5719831324244491791_nSpectrum, which is why this talk will mostly lean towards students with this diagnosis. I do however believe that my thoughts cross over into many diagnoses that include both developmental and physical delays.

There are many reasons that I am quiet during a lesson, including: giving the child time to process instructions, achievements, or a task they have completed. Not only do the students need to understand and respond to me but they also need to do so with the horse. A lot of my students are working on. “if I do this, then I get this,” which includes a lot of trial and error. If we are working on 2-point down the long side and I ask the rider to look up, I will explain how this changes their center of balance and ask the student if they can feel it. After this exercise, I’ll give the rider a long side to relax and process before we try it again. With some students, this does not work because they get distracted by the horses in their paddock, fiddle with their reins, or start talking to their side walker. If the rider is distracted, we acknowledge the distraction and redirect their attention back to the task and if needed, move along quicker.

Sensory overload is another reason why I may be quiet during a lesson. If a child comes to their lesson and seems overwhelmed, I try to start the lesson quietly. Starting the lesson quietly stops the addition of more input which is important because the child is already getting input from the horse’s movement, the side walker, the tactile feel of the saddle, and the other numerous distractions that exist around the barn. Typically after a few laps around the arena these inputs have settled down and the rider can focus on their lesson. During these first few laps I provide compliments such as, “you are holding your reins in a great position, not resting on your saddle with your thumbs up and elbows bent, great job!” Or, I give the student some relaxing instructions, such as, “feel the rhythm of the horse and relax your legs so they can swing with the movement.” While these comments aren’t exactly rocket science, they help to set the tone for a relaxed and smooth lesson.

13442359_543813945825297_3676157708436029611_nThe last reason that I want to touch on that explains why I am quiet during a lesson is that I am dealing with an overly excited or hyperactive child. The barn has ground rules that include no running or yelling; however, I feel that in most cases, actions speak louder than words. When I am calm, thoughtful, and fair, the child takes notice and relaxes into a calmer pace. When working with a horse that is overly excited or anxious, the best thing to do is remain calm. If your energy increases to meet theirs, things only become more escalated. Taking this principle, I apply it during lessons and let overly excited, hyperactive, or extremely nervous riders adjust themselves to their surroundings. I have worked hard to set a calm and quiet rhythm at Empowering Strides to keep our riders safe. This doesn’t mean that students aren’t allowed to talk though; I allow students to sometimes talk during their warm ups, I ask them questions, and let them talk about their hobbies. Not only does this let the students connect, but it allows them to speak their mind without taking their attention off of the lesson.

I’m going to wrap this up with a few great snippets from The National Autism Society’s webpage on “Communicating and Interacting”, guidance on communication and interacting with your autistic child or family member. You can find this page here.


Caring for someone who’s autistic can be hard work and time-consuming. It can be tempting to rush the person when they are performing daily tasks such as eating breakfast and getting dressed. Spare an extra few minutes for these tasks to help them understand what’s happening around them and to think about what they can say during these activities.


Follow the person’s lead, rather than directing them. They will be more likely to pay attention to the activity, more likely to focus on the same thing as you, and will learn how to make choices for themselves.


Limit the amount of words you use to communicate the relevant information.

Use key words that are specific to the context of the situation, repeat and stress them, and use gesture such as pointing, to accompany the words.

If the person has only recently begun to use speech as a means of communication, use single words.

Pause in between spoken words and phrases to give the person time to process what has been said, and to give them an opportunity to think of a response.


Why Do New Students Start In Private Lessons?

First, because of the nature of this work, I interact with a variety of kids with different diagnoses, challenges, and abilities. When we start with a private lesson, it allows me to individually interact with the child, evaluate them, set goals, and determine if our program or horses will be a good fit. Additionally, private lessons gives parents a chance to determine if our program is the right fit for them and their family.

Next, expectations and the routine need to set. At Empowering Strides, we have a routine for all of our lessons and expectations for every one of our riders. I have found that it’s easier for riders to adapt to the routine and expectations at first when they are the only student. Not only does this allow them to better adapt, but it also allows us to take extra time, as it’s needed. Private lessons also allow me to alter our routine, if it doesn’t work for the child. These individualized lessons set students up better for when they join semi-private lessons.

WP_20160213_12_23_35_ProAdditionally, I have to think about the horses. It’s important that each child is paired with the horse that they work best with. Much like each child, each horse has a different personality and tendencies that may or may not work for an individual child. Once the child has been matched with a horse, they need to be placed in a lesson when that horse is available.

Finally, joining lessons is a bit of an art. For a lesson to be effective, the riders need to be at similar lessons cognitively, behaviorally, and with their abilities. If one child is shy and requires extra time to warm up, they won’t work well with a child who is excited and ready to start immediately. Private lessons allow me to consider the best possible match for new students.

Placing a new rider immediately into semi-private lessons can be overwhelming. While the amount of time each child should stay in private lessons differs, this time gives the child a period to adjust and gives the instructor valuable time to make sure all future lessons move as smoothly as possible.


Paying Attention

I recently read a great article, “Paying Attention,” from one of my favorite therapeutic riding blogs, “Lessons in TR.” When I saw the blog in my inbox I immediately thought it would contain tips for keeping students attention during lessons, and while it did, there was much more contained in the blog than I initially thought.

The first paragraph talks about how the writer’s focus has impacted her own relationship with her horse.

Valentine’s Day fun!

“When I first started taking my horse on the short trails around the barn all alone, she would often walk quickly, looking all over, stopping often, very concerned about what might be lurking – not the most comfortable ride. I wondered if she would calm down if I took over the lookout, and sure enough when I sat up tall and turned my head to look back and forth through the trees, she stopped looking and worrying so much!”

Most riders that encounter this situation would be concerned about keeping their horse on track and focused. However, the writer realized that by being the lookout, her horse can have a more enjoyable time, which in turn makes it easier for the rider. This theory works because horses are both prey animals and herd oriented. Just like with other animals, there is an alpha that looks out for the herd’s well-being. When the rider showed her horse that she was aware of their surroundings and prepared to fight, if need be, it calmed the horse.

So how does this relate to therapeutic riding? When working with kids who have sensory processing or attention deficit disorders it can be hard to keep them on track and focused. Many times the rider is seemingly more interested about the stimuli around them such as, other horses or, cars pulling in the driveway, the barn cat, etc.

“…it’s easy to get in the habit of reminding over and over to pay attention. But I find that when I address what it is that took their attention, we suddenly share attention on the same thing, meet in the middle, address it, then can move on so much easier…”

I find myself doing this often in lessons, especially with kids who are quieter or engage less, particularly if they are having a hard day. In our arena a lot of the property is visible. We can see cars pulling into the driveway, horses in their paddocks, and people in the barn isle, which tends to lead to a lot of interruptions. One day in particular, the frost was melting and dripping in our indoor arena so all of the kids were noticing and transfixed by the droplets of water. Instead of asking the children to pay attention, I acknowledged the water drops. Each time I did so this had the children looking towards me, even if only for a second, as they realized that I saw what they saw.

By recognizing these little things and listening, I am meeting my riders on their level, showing them I am interested and better allowing them to communicate with me.


If you’d like to read the full blog you can find it here.



Hippotherapy vs Therapeutic Riding

This week I received a call from a potential client wanting hippotherapy. They had picked up my flyer and hoped I could help. There are big differences between hippotherapy and what I do, 1658706_475509912655701_2036374774956708788_otherapeutic riding, so today I am going to explain some of the major differences.

  • The American Hippotherapy Association, Inc., defines hippotherapy as a “physical, occupational or speech therapy treatment strategy that utilizes equine movement”.
  • PATH International, defines therapeutic riding as “an equine-assisted activity for the purpose of contributing positively to the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of individuals with special needs.” This is the organization I am certified with.

There are two main differences that stand out to me. The first being that in hippotherapy a patient works with a therapist, whether physical, occupational or speech. The second being that hippotherapy focuses on the use of the horses movements to treat a physical disability, it is not a riding lesson. On the other hand, therapeutic riding does not require a therapist and is a recreational activity to positively impact a person with special needs.

12322942_469237156616310_6033533185701629159_oThere are two focuses in Therapeutic riding, physical health and mental health. Depending on how the instructor tailors lessons and goals, therapeutic riding can greatly impact a rider physically or mentally. For example, when working with a child who has a physical diagnosis that effects balance I will plan lessons that are going to include stretches, core strengthening and cross body movement. An example is asking the rider to use their right hand to pick up an object on their left side or vice versa.

When working with a child with a mental diagnosis that perhaps effects things like emotional awareness or anxiety I can use the horse to encourage sharing, boost confidence and promote empathy. I’ve witnessed kids who are scolded by their parents while waiting before a lesson for hitting a sibling or parent but when working with the horse a simple ‘he doesn’t like when you hit him’ has stopped them in their tracks. I’ve worked with a rider who was so nervous and shy she could not assist in tacking up the horse but eagerly climbed on and rode with a smile on her face. I’ve had siblings who constantly fought at home and would not share snacks before lessons patiently wait while the other took turns completing an obstacle course or trotting. In just a few lessons these riders have shown progress at the barn and eventually at home, or even school.

With Empowering Strides I  focus on the mental health side of things. I certainly have riders that face physical challenges, but I’ve really grown to love and appreciate what the horse can do for our mental health.


Meet Gretta and Ryder

This week I went out to Bedlam Farms and spent some time getting to know Gretta and Ryder. I spent a couple of hours grooming and handling each horse to assess their temperament and usability for our program.

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Let’s start with Miss Gretta. What a lovely mare! I’m a firm believer that horses are sentient beings. After just a short time with Gretta it’s apparent she handles herself like an elegant lady. Everything was easy with Gretta, she seemed to know what I wanted before I wanted it. I’m very excited to have her for our program!


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Oh Ryder. This guy knows he is handsome! He was more than willing to stand for a good grooming and boy, did he need a good scrub with a shedding blade. This guy knows how to grow some major hair. Ryder is not nearly as mature or dignified as Gretta but he is such a cool guy and I’m sure he will have many fans with his good looks!



We’re Live!

Finally, the secret is out! Empowering Strides was publicly launched on October 1st, 2015.

It’s been a rough few weeks trying to keep this all quiet while hurrying to get everything finished in time. Our website will continue to be updated and improved as we go. If you have any comments please feel free to share! October will be an equally busy month as we complete administrative tasks and marketing before lessons start on November 4th. So stay tuned!

Hello World!

Hello Everyone!

Thank you so much for visiting my page to learn more about Empowering Strides. I’m very excited to start this journey. For sixteen years I’ve had an undying passion for horses and I can’t wait to share that with the world. I’ll be adding more blogs shortly, stay tuned!