HACKETTSTOWN, NJ (Warren County) — A new horse at Centenary University may sport a glamorous name, but Barbie is much more than just a pretty face.
Acquired through the generosity of an anonymous donor, this beauty works hard serving riders with disabilities as part of the University’s therapeutic riding program. Called TRAC (Therapeutic Riding At Centenary), the program teaches horsemanship and horseback riding skills to children and adults with disabilities, while enhancing related goals such as balance, strength, and sensory integration.
Therapeutic riding horses require special qualities to adapt to riders with varying physical and emotional needs, according to Karen Brittle, assistant professor of equine studies and director of TRAC. “This job can be mentally demanding for a horse,” Brittle explained. “When a horse is ridden by one person for sport or competition, they learn that person’s quirks and have a partnership with that person. Therapeutic riding horses can be handled by dozens of people in a week, and riders with special needs bring different behaviors and energy levels to their lessons. These horses need to really enjoy being handled by people.”
Barbie is an 8-year-old Haflinger, a small-horse breed known for a sturdy build. While her full background isn’t known, Brittle believes Barbie previously worked on an Amish farm. Barbie’s short stature and wide base of support provide the versatility to accommodate children and most adults, especially those who are gravitationally insecure or have attention challenges that would be exacerbated at greater heights.
Brittle added that therapeutic riding horses must also have a calm, patient temperament: “These horses have to be predictable in their behavior and tolerate changes to their environment. Horses are prey animals, so their nature is to flee to safety when they’re in a claustrophobic situation. At any time, Barbie and our other therapeutic riding horses may have a rider, someone on the lead, and one or two people walking on the sides, depending on the support needs of the rider. So, they could work for an hour surrounded by four people. It takes a very special horse to adapt to this type of work.”
Barbie arrived at Centenary late last spring and went through 10 weeks of acclimation and training before being paired with her first rider, a 10-year-old boy, at TRAC’s youth summer camp. “The emotional connection between horse and rider was really important to this boy,” Brittle recalled. “Barbie was a pro and responded well to the attention she received from her rider and our staff. For this particular rider, it meant a lot that he was part of Barbie’s training team.”
Barbie’s anonymous donor saw the powerful difference TRAC makes while completing the University’s instructor in training program. The eight-credit program, which is open to the public, prepares participants to test for certification as a certified therapeutic riding instructor (CTRI). The donor noted, “Barbie was donated because I got to see firsthand how important the program is to those who participate in the classes as a rider, volunteer, or instructor.”