The rhythm in a horses gait is an exact match to a humans walkthats why WVU is offering a course this fall that will teach students how to use horses as therapy to help people with disabilities.

The course, Introduction to Therapeutic Horsemanship (AFCS 293F), will be offered through the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Forestry and Consumer Sciences and is open to students of any major without prerequisites.

Carol Petitto, an adjunct instructor of resource management, will teach the course, half of which will take place at WVU and the other half at her farm off campus.

Horse therapy can be incredibly helpful for someone who cant walk,said Petitto, who will open her own horse therapy center this fall in conjunction with the class being offered.A person with disabilities will receive therapy from a horses gait that he cant get from any other therapy source because when youre riding a horse, youre using the same muscles.

In addition to muscle strength, the rhythmic motion of horse riding often helps riders with physical disabilities to improve in flexibility and balance.

Horse therapy is used for persons with a variety of disabilities including, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, autism, visual impairment, emotional disabilities, brain injuries, deafness and amputations.

Petitto said for individuals with special needs, equine-assisted activities have improved muscle tone, posture, balance, coordination, motor development and total well being, and as an added bonus, attitude.

Kids or adults who are not motivated to do physical therapy will be motivated and are more willing to learn and listen when you use a horse for therapy,said Petitto, who has 31 horses at her farm, six of which are already trained to be used for therapy.

The unique relationship bond formed between a rider and a horse can lead to increased confidence, patience and self-esteem in people with mental or emotional disabilities, she added.

A class offered for the first time this summer, called Natural Horsemanship, incorporated the use of some of the training techniques that will be applied this fall. Petitto said the training techniques are designed to desensitize the horses to motion and are fun for the trainer and the horse.

We train the horses with games. Playing basketball and baseball while on the horses are a few of the things we will do,said Petitto.

Another exercise will include riding the horses in between aquatic toys, called fun noodles, hanging from a bar.

This all helps to desensitize the horses,said Petitto.When youre working with children and adults with disabilities, you cant make them get on a horse and sit perfectly still. So, the horses need to get used to the feeling of movement and become desensitized to it.

In opening her therapy center, Petitto has contracted with Stepping Stones in Morgantown, a recreational facility for people with disabilities. The classtherapy participants will be from Stepping Stones.

Although a small fee will be charged, the financial aspect of the therapy center will be handled through Stepping Stones, according to Petitto, who added that she hopes to be able to offer a scholarship program to people with disabilities who cannot pay.

Profit making is not my goal at all,she said.Ive always wanted to do this, help people with special needs, using my horses.

This type of therapeutic riding began in Europe in the early 1950s, according to the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, Inc., (NARHA), which was founded in 1969 to promote the use of therapeutic riding in the United States and Canada.

Petitto is currently in the process of becoming a registered instructor with NARHA and hopes to be certified by Aug. 19. To become registered with NARHA , she has been volunteering and teaching at an already established NARHA center in Maryland.

Petitto said she has learned a lot about therapeutic training at the Maryland center.

I saw a man with multiple sclerosis, who was wheelchair bound, start horse therapy. Now he is able to walk using a cane and is driving a car,she added.The fact that this therapy is so useful to so many people is inspiring. I almost cry every time Im there.

The class will not likely be offered for the spring semester during the 2007-2008 school year because of inclement weather. Petitto is in the process of building an indoor arena, which is slated to be completed sometime in 2008.

For the fall class, Petitto said some basics will be covered in the classroom, such as explanations of therapeutic riding, how to train a therapeutic horse, the structure of the business side of therapeutic training and a general overview of the types of disabilities the students may encounter.

Currently, there are 23 students registered for the fall class, which has a maximum enrollment of 50.

I have a lot of assistant volunteers, six or seven other adults, to help me with the horse handling. Each horse needs three volunteers when a disabled person is riding,she said.This has been a dream of mine for a long time. To be able to combine teaching, my love of horses and helping people with disabilities in this way, is a wonderful thing.