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New Therapeutic Riding Instructor at MSU


Mississippi State University Extension Service Therapeutic Riding Center

By Leigh Ballard

Cassie Brunson is the new instructor and extension associate at the Mississippi State University Extension Service Elizabeth A. Howard 4-H Therapeutic Riding and Activity Center. 

Brunson began her career at the center as a volunteer. The therapeutic programs at the center rely on many volunteers, as many of the riding participants require several individuals helping in their therapy. For example, some riders need a person leading the horse as well as a person assisting on each side of the horse. During her time as a volunteer, she saw all the good results for children and adults with disabilities that were facilitated by the program.   When the position became available, Cassie quickly saw an opportunity to move from volunteer to employee.

Brunson has great enthusiasm and plans for her first year as instructor. The existing programs have served many children and adults with disabilities ranging from autism to cerebral palsy. She intends to keep all the existing programs strong and growing.  “We’ve added a few new horses to the program. We plan to expand some programs and add more riders. Not only will we be able to serve more riders, but we will also increase our number of volunteers, and increase awareness of our program overall.”  Brunson says “Our kids are riding longer too.  We have expanded our sessions from 6 or 8 weeks to longer 10 week and 12 week sessions. And we are adding summer camps for children with and without disabilities.”

“We serve adults too,” Brunson says. “We promote mental health and senior health. We are starting some new programs for able-bodied senior riders.”  Equine therapy programs help develop confidence and other behavioral skills. The riding center has begun a partnership with a local drug and alcohol dependency treatment center so that clients can have therapy with horses.

 “Not everybody we serve rides the horses,” she says. “Some programs, such as the one with the drug and alcohol clients, use the horses for work on the ground. For groundwork, the patients learn to communicate with the animal, and develop a relationship of trust and communication that maybe they find hard to develop with people. Many behaviors have to change in order to work well with a horse, and this is beneficial for many of the patients.”

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) promotes a variety of equine-assisted therapies for individuals with special needs. The PATH website states “PATH International members help more than 54,000 children and adults with physical, mental and emotional challenges find strength and independence through the power of the horse each year.” Brunson received her PATH International Therapeutic Riding Instructor certification last fall.  One of her goals is that the Mississippi State facility will have the ability to offer PATH certification classes in the near future.

The riding center occupies the Elizabeth H. Howard 4-H Arena in West Point, MS. Brunson has plans to open the arena for limited general public riding. “It’s a way to create awareness for what we do here and why this arena was built. And it’s also a way to give back to the community. So many people can’t ride at certain times because of weather and mud. We give them a place where they can ride and practice in this nice covered arena. The more people who know about the center, the better off we are.”

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