West Virginia University’s equine therapy program is helping change the lives of people with disabilities, providing the training for nuanced care for both physical and mental impairments.

“Horse therapy is not only for people with physical disabilities; it also supports mental health and overall stability,” said Carol Petitto, an adjunct instructor in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources & Design, said. “Those who benefit include people with autism, visual impairment, emotional disabilities and brain injuries. We have found it is beneficial for at-risk students and even veterans.”

Petitto teaches the online course Introduction to Equine Assisted Activity and Therapies, and is the director of On Eagles’ Wings Therapeutic Horsemanship in Fairmont.


On Eagles’ Wings recently began bringing a mini-horse to the WVU Medicine Children’s once a month to visit the patients. At one visit, a non-speaking child was motivated to speak after interacting with the horse. The hospital program also provides an opportunity for medical students to learn about how equine therapy techniques can supplement what they are learning in the classroom.

“Ultimately, therapeutic horsemanship is a rewarding profession that covers a broad spectrum and helps a lot of people,” Petitto said. “What we do is life-changing.”

She said On Eagles’ Wings provides hippotherapy, a treatment strategy that uses the horse’s natural, dynamic, three-dimensional movement, which mimics the walk of a human. In addition to muscle strength, the rhythmic motion of horse riding often helps riders with physical disabilities to improve in flexibility and balance. This therapy gives them confidence and has helped some children who couldn’t walk to get on their feet for the first time, she said.

Introduction to Equine Assisted Activity and Therapies, is offered by WVU Continuing Professional Education.

This fun, innovative course provides basic skills in equine assisted therapy, including hippotherapy and related mental health activities. It is open to adults who want to learn the ins and outs of therapeutic horseback riding, who are interested in careers in the industry, or who just want to work with horses as a volunteer.

Petitto developed this blended course, which consists of online sessions combined with a one-day clinic in June at the On Eagles’ Wings riding facility. The spring 2017online course takes place in April and May, and registration is going on now through April 15. Students may register online or call 1.800.253.2762. The cost is $199 and the course is non-credit, although physical and occupational therapists can earn contact hours and continuing education credits.

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