HN contributor Lorraine Jackson explores the idea behind sensory trails, interactive riding experiences that help participants connect with the world around them.
On a soggy February morning, barn owner Jayme Alexander passes the rings, barns, paddocks, and the other usual elements of a multi-use horse farm and leads me to the feature that sets her barn apart- an equine sensory trail.
I know. I had no idea what this was, either. For a farm in the heart of suburbia, she had to be resourceful with her space, and ultimately decided that this was an element that her riders needed. “We’ve only had it for about 2 years, so there is a lot left to do. And our water noodles need some repairs!” That’s right- WATER NOODLES. Now you’re hooked.
A concept founded in the equine therapeutic community, an equine sensory trail is designed to be a rich environment of natural trees, slopes, twists and turns, natural sounds, and a variety of stations along the way where a rider can fully engage each of their senses. It’s much like a real trail ride, but in a contained space, and with a lot more planned interaction. “We use it with kids, adults, and a lot of different disabilities” Jayme continues, “and it’s a good space for some hide-and-seek on horses, as you’ve seen.” She’s right. Just the week before I’d come to see the trail for the first time and I was very disappointed to be found so quickly by the young boy in his lesson, despite what I thought was a champion hiding spot in the tractor tire.
Originally conceived as a walking trail for people with visual impairment to expand their other senses, sensory trails are expanding in the world of equine therapy to be used by anyone with a mental or physical disability who might struggle to connect to the world around them. Sensory trails now incorporate many visual stimulants, as well as stations along the way where a rider might feel various textures as they pass, such as the water noodles dangling from above, hear new sounds like their horse walking through a gravel pit, or even taste a variety of herbs from a raised garden box.
And dude, the horses are not any worse for the wear from the exposure, either. Whose greenie wouldn’t benefit from a few more covert lawn gnomes, tricky terrain, and a bright, dangly water noodle or two? Natural horsemanship has already done well to popularize many desensitizing techniques, and the sensory trail seems to build on that. Sensory trails are just now starting to expand outside the therapeutic world and are working their way into average lesson and boarding barns across the country. Owners are praising sensory trails for being beneficial for green horses and young riders alike (though preferably not at the same time) and can even be a great reward system for more difficult ring lessons, to bring the sensory connection of horse and rider back into focus.
So you may be asking yourself, is a sensory trail right for me? My biased answer is a big fat yes. But here are some important things to consider:
- Sensory trails range in size from a minimum of half an acre, with some being up to 10 acres. There are a variety of layouts to consider, such as a groomed snaking path, a loop around your property, or for our organic enthusiasts, a more “Free Range” design where you can wander between stations at will.
- If your barn has riders with disabilities, you should be prepared to have a maximum number of volunteers on hand to lead and sidewalk, because there may be some increased hazards in a sensory trail setting. Also, they should all be PHENOMENAL hide-and-seekers. Seriously. I suggest holding tryouts.
- Always leave ample space around the stations for horses, riders, and volunteers, and make sure there is access to an open space away from obstacles if either the horse or the rider need to regroup.
As I wandered back to the barn and saw Jayme hard at work blanketing horse after horse for the cold night ahead, I asked her if she had any miracle stories about the trail since implementing it in her program.
“You don’t really see profound change in the lessons,” she said. “But we have a boy with a mental disability who had some really horrible things happen to him when he was young, he comes here regularly, and week after week it was hard to tell what progress we were making. We kind of thought he hated it. And then his parents told us this is the only activity that he asks about all week.” She took a brief pause to look over her spread of ponies, Belgians and everything in between. “You just never know.”
Jayme Alexander is owner of The Stable Place in Salt Lake City, Utah. More information at www.thestableplaceslc.com.
Photos of Pegasus Therapeutic Riding taken by Christine Fitzgerald. More information at www.pegasustr.org.