Therapeutic riding students attain PATH

BILLINGS, Montana – Rocky Mountain College combined its degree in therapeutic riding instruction with PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) certification in 2012 to further prepare students to secure employment right out of school. Only seven colleges in the U.S. offer a equestrian degree that includes PATH certification.

Equine therapy

People with disabilities benefit from therapeutic riding. Photo by Dave M. Shumway

“We’re teaching riding, possibly in an adaptive manner, with a potential therapeutic benefit,” said Hollis Edwards, assistant professor of equestrian studies.

Combining the degree with PATH certification gives RMC graduates a competitive edge to meet the demands of this dynamic and rapidly expanding career. The equine therapy degree combines riding, a minor in psychology, and handson teaching along with the certification. “This makes our RMC students the most marketable,” she noted.

Although only 40 percent of national applicants receive PATH certification, RMC’s pass rate of 100 percent included nine students in 2013 and three in 2014.

This year Alyssa O’Kelley (’15) of Murrieta, Calif., Sara Hall (’15) of Templeton, Calif., and Katherine Hibbs (’16) of Roberts, Mont., received certification from PATH International officials based in Denver. Exam components include 25 hands-on teaching hours, online tests, and other units such as CPR.

The certifier is “very happy with the program we’re developing and impressed with our students’ maturity and preparedness,” said Edwards.

Students spend two to three years studying therapeutic riding instruction prior to taking the certification. They spend countless hours gaining hands-on teaching experience, in riding and lecture instruction, and developing riding and horse-training skills. With their combined education in therapeutic riding instruction, PATH certification, and equestrian education, Rocky Mountain College graduates lead “an amazing hands-on program in an emerging field,” Edwards said.

“It’s amazing how this one animal, who’s not changing anything up at all, can affect each disability and each client in its own special way. A horse’s movement can affect balance, neuromuscular sense, sensory input, cardiovascular health,” as well as mental state, she said.

“From in a wheelchair to on a horse: what a change in perspective,” she marvels. “To our knowledge, right now, the horse’s movement is the only therapy that mimics the adult human walk.”

Typically RMC students become equine therapy instructors between junior and senior year, so they practice a year of on-the-job mentoring after their certification in order to build skills and their résumé. In classes or on an internship, they do behind-the scenes work, arrange which horses and volunteers to use, work with clients’ agencies, and instruct younger students on the processes of certification.

The certification “opens all sorts of opportunities” for RMC-required internships, said Ellen Anderson (’14), whose PATH certification helped her to intern with the prestigious Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship in Wylie, Texas. “Having certification before an internship is insurance for employers,” she said.

“We do it together as a team,” Edwards said. “I had to go do this on my own, before we had this program with built-in clients, volunteers, and mentors.” RMC has since cultivated a local client list through Easter Seals, the Pediatric Therapy Clinic, Eagle Mount Billings, and word of mouth. The last week of June, the RMC program again hosts the Easter Seals-Goodwill Northern Rocky Mountain “Horsin Around” camp for children.

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