Therapeutic Horse Riding in the Desert

Written by Eric Narrow on . Posted in Health & Wellness

(Photo credit: JNF)

Traveling on Israel’s Route 90 along the Jordanian border on the way to Eilat for rest and relaxation can be either beautiful or mundane, depending on one’s state of mind. Most of the trip includes views of a lot of sand, mountain terrain, and expansive vistas. However, for residents who call the Arava Valley home, Route 90 is their “Main Street” for social, commercial, and communal activities.

Turning onto a small road, toward the picturesque hills of Jordan, is a desert oasis filled with the smiles and laughter of hundreds of children and adults with special needs, who come from all over the region to the Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center (RMTRC) at Kibbutz Grofit. According to the center’s founder, Jill Oron, “Horse therapy transcends the spectrum of all types of special needs.” Indeed, not only do the participants come from all ethnic and religious backgrounds, the services are used to help those with social, cognitive, physical, and emotional disabilities as well.

Oron was trained as a play therapist in the United Kingdom. Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses play as a mechanism for overcoming psychological or emotional trauma or helping children develop stronger communication and interpersonal skills. Shortly after making aliyah at the age of 29, she took her love of play therapy to a new level and opened the Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center, a premier horse therapy center deep in the Arava.

With just three horses and 15 participants at its inception, the center now boasts 21 horses and over 230 riders each week; many of the horses were born right there at Kibbutz Grofit. “We learned a lot by trial and error,” said Oron, speaking on the success of their therapeutic services. “We have grown organically in terms of our services, and continue to grow in size due to the growing population of the area.” Indeed, individuals with special needs and their families find that they require high levels of specialized social services, and the center’s work has helped attract many to the area.

The program finds its greatest success in matching each rider with the most appropriate horse. For example, a rider with cerebral palsy, who lacks strong muscular and mobility control, will be matched with a horse that has a slower gait, and whose cadence creates a complex physical reaction for the rider, to allow them to strengthen core muscle groups. Conversely, someone with hypertonia, or rigid and spastic muscle control, will be paired with a horse with a much faster gait, helping to relax their muscles and allowing for more flexibility and control throughout their therapy.

Similarly, Oron has been successful in helping at-risk youth through horse therapy. “We teach them to build confidence,” Oron boasts. “This is their little corner of the world where they feel they can succeed.” However, unlike those with physical disabilities, these riders are matched based on the horse’s personality. When the teenagers arrive at the ranch, Oron first makes sure they are calm before they even enter the barn. “We teach them to approach a situation with the right state of mind.” By learning to control an aggressive horse, and calmly deal with their own situational awareness, it allows them more introspection into how they, in turn, deal with other people.

“None of this would even be possible without the support of Jewish National Fund (JNF),” Oron explained. “Eighty percent of our funding for scholarships and building projects has come from JNF donors.” Out of the 230 weekly riders, 190 of them are recipients of some kind of scholarship, allowing inclusion for all riders, and lessening the burden on their families to provide their children with these life-changing opportunities.

While those living in Israel’s bustling and congested central metropolis may only pass through this region on vacation, for those who have chosen to make this amazing region their home, the Arava’s Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center is a beautiful respite from everyday life, and for every rider who receives therapy, it is surely a major highlight each week.

By Eric Narrow