sealPurdue News _____

November 1997

Horsin' around therapeutic for kids

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A Purdue University program that pairs disabled children with horses is helping kids gain self-confidence while keeping them physically active.
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THE CHAPS (Therapy, Health and Education through Children and Horses As PartnerS) program is a different kind of therapy for children with disabilities, says coordinator Sheri McCormick. CHAPS students spend one hour a week riding horses to improve their motor skills. Children gain more coordination, balance, muscle control and a surge of confidence as a result.

"When they're on the horse and able to control it and direct it, they get a positive feeling of self-confidence and courage," McCormick says. "The horses' legs become their legs. The horses give them a feeling of freedom and mobility that many of them don't have."

CHAPS sessions, which are held at two West Lafayette-area stables, are more than just riding. Participants, who must have a physician's release to qualify, also play games on horseback. The riders often can be found horsing around with horse basketball, relay games, Red Light/Green Light and Follow the Leader.

The children also become friends with other students, volunteers and the horses. "There's definitely a bond with the horse. The horse provides unconditional acceptance; horses don't judge," McCormick says.

These budding young equestrians discover more about their animal friends, as well. "The children learn about stable management, which includes feeding and grooming the horses," says McCormick, who received her training at the Cheff Center in Augusta, Mich. The facility teaches children with disabilities to ride and certifies instructors. In addition to being the CHAPS coordinator, McCormick is an Americans With Disabilities educator at Purdue.

A wide range of children with special needs are involved in the program. "Some of our students are very physically involved, and others have emotional problems. We also have children who have learning disabilities and cognitive impairment," she says.

The program has the potential to serve as a research setting in child development, special education, recreational therapy, human-animal interaction, veterinary science, animal science and therapeutic riding.

There are more than 500 similar CHAPS programs in the country, McCormick says. Purdue's program, which is run out of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, has been operating since January 1993.

Ann Coller, a West Lafayette resident, has been a CHAPS parent for the past three years. Her 10-year-old daughter Cathy and 15-year-old son Christopher have benefited greatly from the program, Coller says. Both children have spastic dyplegia, which causes weakness and spasticity in the legs.

"It has allowed the children to do something that normal people do. It's something they're very proud of. They tell their friends to come and watch them," their mother says. "They have pride in leading the horses around their friends."

Cathy echoes her mother's sentiments. "I like to trot," she says. "You just say 'trot' and the horse runs. It's fun!"

Her favorite activity is playing games with the other riders. Cathy especially likes joining in Red Light/Green Light and horse basketball. "You have the basketball in your hand," she says, explaining how horse basketball is played. "You walk and then stop the horse and throw the ball into the hoop."

Riding horses and learning about their care are experiences Cathy and Christopher share with their parents. It's a good recreational activity for them, Coller says. "I like the fact that they have developed a knowledge about horses and feel comfortable around them," she says. "They certainly do something I can't do. As parents, we're not comfortable with horses. They teach us about them; it has been a real boost to their self-esteem."

Source: Sheri McCormick, (765) 494-6479; e-mail,
Ann Coller, (765) 743-4202
Writer: Azura Domschke, (765) 494-8402; e-mail
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,


CHAPS instructor Rita Smith helps 8-year-old Seth Warren of Williamsport, Ind., prepare for a ride. (Photo by Mike Kerper)
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