Virtual Horseback Riding: Recreational Therapy Turns To Alternate Methods During COVID-19

Apr 16, 2020

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the job titles of Camp Red Cedar employees Alisha Key and Kayla Wagner. The story has been updated.


Social distancing and isolation have kept us from our daily routines. It's hard on all of us, but for those with disabilities, the absence of these activities can be very problematic.


At Camp Red Cedar they don’t just host summer camps and riding lessons for kids. They also use interactions with their horses as a form of behavioral therapy for kids and adults with disabilities. Part of that therapy is horseback riding.

This kind of behavioral therapy is called recreational therapy, which uses recreational activities a person already enjoys to address an individuals specific needs and create goals. 

Recreational therapist Alisha Key says the types of goals each person sets might be different and they might have different types of activities they do to achieve them.

“Whether it’s cognitive or physical goals or a social goal. And then we kind of work and set goals to work on and then we kind of tie those goals into recreational activities.” 

When the stay-at-home order became a clear trajectory for Indiana, Red Cedar had to completely shift its mindset on how to continue to help clients without being able to have them physically present.

The solution? Virtual horseback riding therapy.

Kayla Wagner is another recreational therapist at the camp.

“We weren’t sure how it was gonna work, but it has actually been working very well for many of the clients.”

She says the routine is important to maintain, even while keeping distance.

“Really beneficial to our clients to still get to work towards their goals every week, even if it’s a different type of way we have to do it.”

Alisha Key visits with one of the camp's horses.

Cyndi Niezer is the riding and volunteer program coordinator for the camp. She says there are many things you can take away from interactions with horses, besides the riding.

“What we’ve really tried to encourage our recreational therapists is work on educating them about the horses. You know, let’s work on colors of the horse, let’s work on behaviors of the horse or let’s work on what the horse’s facial expressions mean.”

Still, a main component of horseback riding therapy is the physical components. But when the staff saw the loss of that physical connection on the horizon, they began to work to find a solution. Key and Wagner were able to record videos of themselves with the horses, walking the client through what to do before, during and after the ride.

“We recorded a herd of horses together and have our clients watch them and kind of talk about horse behavior and what they’re seeing through that. And we also did some grooming videos so they can watch the video with the therapist and kind of talk them through as they see what they’re doing if they’re doing it correctly or incorrectly.”

Key says the sessions allow them to use FaceTime to bring the clients into the barn and allow them to interact with the horses and talk them through how to do each process of grooming the horse or preparing them for a ride to continue to simulate the physical response.

“So, like, when they’re doing that grooming process, a lot of times we’re having them do those motor exercises as well.”

Another problem the therapists are facing is a lack of attention. It can be hard to keep a child’s attention for an hour during a normal session, but they’ve found it even more difficult when the interaction is through a screen.

“We will do shorter lessons a couple times a week. So with my younger kids we’ll do 15 minute or 30 minute lesson kind of whenever we feel like they’re ready to be done, we’ll stop and then we’ll try to make another lesson for later that week with a different activity. So, we’ll split it up instead of trying to keep their attention for a full hour.”

Niezer says the shift allows them to continue to bring a familiar activity and environment to clients, even while their routine may have shifted.

“So, even though we can’t give them the smells and the feels and the looks from the horses, we can at least bring them into the barn on a daily basis."

Executive Director Carrie Perry says they’re still working to improve the options for virtual access to the camp, even beyond the behavioral therapy.

“We’re really brainstorming more ideas of how we can impact more individuals in the community, whether they’re specific clients for us or just somebody that might be on our facebook page.”

She says they’re considering things like virtual tours of Camp Red Cedar or trail rides in an effort to reach more people during an uneasy time.


Camp Red Cedar is a service of Benchmark Human Services. To learn more about Benchmark and their other services, check out Julia Meek’s in-depth conversation about what the organization is doing for their clients during the coronavirus pandemic.