Cool Courses: Therapeutic Riding Teams Otterbein Students Up with Special Olympics Athletes 

Posted Jun 23, 2023

What does a student need to learn to work in therapeutic riding? It turns out, A LOT! From paperwork to training, horse selection to teaching, and even managing volunteers. Luckily, Associate Professor Steffanie Burk, Department of Equine Science, has developed the perfect course to teach Otterbein students how to manage all of that, and do some good in the community by working with Special Olympics athletes.  

Let’s find out more about the course! 

Therapeutic Riding 

This course provides theory and practical experience using the PATH International model of therapeutic riding. Students will learn about history of therapeutic riding, common disabilities, benefits for participants, safety regulations, written policies and procedures, precautions, contraindications, teaching methods, mounting techniques, and equine and equipment selection. Students will gain practical experience in developing lesson plans and instructing therapeutic riding lessons.  

What inspired you to develop this course?  

I had prior experience in equine-assisted services and wanted to make this content available to Otterbein students. While I was completing my master’s degree, I obtained a graduate assistantship at a therapeutic riding center located on the university campus. After graduation, I worked at the center as a therapeutic horseback riding instructor, taught a course on equine-assisted services, and was also the assistant director at the equestrian center. After a few years, I went back to school for my doctorate degree in animal science so that I could obtain a full-time faculty position. When I interviewed at Otterbein, the Equine Science Department faculty were interested in my prior experience in therapeutic riding, and I proposed some potential courses for a minor. The field of equine-assisted services is growing, and there are many opportunities for graduates. 

Why do you love teaching this course?  

I teach the course as if students are going through many of the processes that they would incorporate in a real therapeutic riding center. Students must learn about the typical paperwork and training aspects, then move on to selecting the horses that we will use, hosting an orientation for new riders, and then teaching the riders themselves. We work with Westerville Special Olympics, which is a lot of fun. I enjoy watching the students progress as therapeutic riding instructors throughout the semester, and seeing the Special Olympics riders improve their skills. The last day is typically a fun show where the riders compete in different events, and everyone is excited for the competition and the awards. 

What is the most unexpected thing students learn in this course?  

Many of the students enter the class without much background in the subject area or limited experiences in working with individuals with disabilities. I think some of the students are surprised at how much they enjoy working with our Special Olympics athletes. 

How do the themes in your course prepare students to think critically?  

Students have to be able to “think on their feet” and have awareness of what is going on in the arena. The lessons typically have 3-4 horses (and so 3-4 riders), as well as 1-3 volunteers per horse, so there can be a lot to manage at one time. The student instructors need to be able to monitor horses, riders, and volunteers for safety while giving clear and concrete instructions, appropriate feedback, and keeping the riders engaged. 

What is some of your favorite student feedback you have received about this course?  

Many of the students comment that they enjoy the interactive nature of the course, and that they were surprised how much they loved working with the Special Olympics riders. I also enjoy hearing when students say that they feel prepared and motivated to pursue therapeutic riding instructor certification and/or a career in the field. 

What are some interesting projects or activities you do to engage your students in your course?  

We work on our horse selections. Students choose horses from our facility who they think might be therapeutic riding candidates and test them in different scenarios both on the ground and under saddle. We narrow down our selection to the four horses who perform the best and use them for a mock lesson. We then host the new Special Olympics riders at an orientation, which the students will plan and facilitate. Then, students will teach a lesson for a college student who has no riding experience. During the second half of the semester, students will take turns teaching the Special Olympics lessons. Students also obtain their Special Olympics Sport Assistant certification as a result of the class.  

What is a dream course you would like to develop or teach?  

I had been wanting to teach a course that incorporated positive reinforcement training for horses but was able to co-teach the Operant Conditioning and Animal Welfare course for the first time last semester. I became interested in that topic after fostering dogs and horses and working through some behavior modification challenges. The course is primarily for Zoo and Conservation Science majors, and I think it would be fun to teach a version of the course to Equine majors as well. I have some ideas for modifications to the activities in the course for next year, and maybe incorporate other species too if we have time.  

I also enjoyed teaching the Mitakuye Oyasin travel class to Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and would be open to teaching that course again. Students were able to work at the Sinte Gleska University ranch, where local children attend horse camp and take riding lessons and participate in equine assisted psychotherapy sessions facilitated by staff who are mental health professionals. I had been planning to co-teach a new travel course to the UK called Anthrozoology Abroad, but unfortunately that was during the spring 2020 semester. I really don’t have room in my schedule to develop any more new courses though!