When 3-year-old Caleb Casaus arrived for his therapeutic riding lesson at New Mexico State University on a crisp spring morning, he looked a little uncertain. Jorge Cardona, an occupational therapist with MECA Therapies, lifted Caleb onto Frankie, a large brown Appaloosa horse with a white face.
It didn’t take long for Caleb to start to smile, speak and even high-five Cardona.
Caleb is one of several clients in the NMSU Therapeutic Riding Program, which is part of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. His unquestionable comfort level with Frankie is one reason his therapy sessions are successful.
Laura White, director of the TRP, said the human-animal connection is a key component to the therapy sessions.
“We see a lot of interaction between the client and the horse,” she said. “The clients are usually able to first connect with the horse and begin to trust that large animal. Then they begin to trust the people who are there to help them in the session.”
White is also an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences who teaches a number of equine-related courses.
The TRP has partnered with private therapy companies and with the NMSU Family and Child Science Program to provide therapeutic equine options to community members. Those options include equine-assisted learning, equine-assisted psychotherapy and hippotherapy.
“Our clients have a wide range of abilities, so everyone takes away something a little different,” White said. “Many of the young clients are unsure of the world around them, and they don’t trust very easily. In order to complete a therapy session on the back of a horse, with a therapist and without their mother or father, it takes a lot of trust.”
Cardona led Caleb through a series of activities in which the child was asked to identify shapes of various objects and to identify colors of big plastic rings strategically placed throughout the arena. They also worked on improving Caleb’s speech.
Caleb’s mother, Nicolle Casaus, said she has seen many improvements in her son as a result of the lessons.
“It has really helped developed his core strength, and he’s much more stable when he’s walking,” Casaus said. “It’s also really helped him develop some language skills. He’s been pretty delayed, and now he’s been talking a lot more. It’s helped calm his nervous system, so he may enjoy other experiences.”
During Caleb’s lessons, he’s blocked from the sun, thanks to a cover that was installed over the arena in 2015. New Mexico Senator Mary Kay Papen led efforts to secure capital outlay funding for a covered arena. Private donors and the College of ACES contributed additional funding for the idea to become a reality.
Plans are underway for a sensory trail surrounding the covered arena. White said the sensory trail will provide another scenario in which the client and horse may interact.
“The horse might walk over gravel, then over a wooden bridge, and then over something softer,” she said. “So the horse’s hooves will hit the ground and sound different to the client, depending on where they are on the trail.”
The trail will also include hills, trees, plants and interactive games on a board that’s the height of the horse.
“This will allow the clients to do something a little different,” White said. “They’ll have the opportunity to hear different things, see different things and touch different things.”
In addition to the covered arena and the sensory trail, future improvements include an addition to the arena and a barn in which the horses may live. Members of the NMSU Therapeutic Riding Association organize a pony carnival each semester as a small fundraiser. White said there is also some capital interest to improve upon the arena.