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[Weekender] Healing with horses

Children with behavioral, mental health issues gain confidence after befriending horses during riding lessons

Riders and horse dealers may argue about which was the most beautiful horse ever beheld by mankind.

But for a 12-year-old sixth grader with a strained school life, who asked not to be named, no horse beats Heemang, her favorite riding mate.

Heemang, which means “hope” in Korean, is one of the 15 riding horses being raised at the Riding Healing Center in Incheon, west of Seoul, established by the Korea Racing Authority.

“I like Heemang the best; she is a good girl and does exactly what I tell her to,” the girl murmured softly when asked to pick her favorite horse.

She is battling mental and behavioral illnesses, according to the riding center. Shy and sensitive, she found it difficult to blend in at school.

A month ago, she began therapeutic horseback riding, a sport increasing in popularity among children.

Horseback riding generates strong motivation for achievement and enhances communicative skills, helps with cognitive dysfunction, stabilizes emotional imbalances and increases sociability, studies have shown.

According to the Education Ministry data, about 1.8 million children, or approximately 24 percent of the country’s younger population, are suffering from mental or behavioral illness.

She put on her riding helmet and protective vest, getting ready for a 15-minute grooming and a 30-minute ride around the indoor arena. Her riding instructor, Park Jun-geun, guided her through the lesson.

“Typical Korean students are asked to remain passive, are given directions at school or home, such as ‘do this,’ ‘do that,’ or ‘don’t do that.’ But here we ask our students if they can or cannot undertake the given missions, trying to encourage them to speak up for themselves,” Park said.

“Confidence comes naturally as they learn how to handle these big buddies and take good care of them.”

For the first 15 minutes, she groomed 10-year-old Soondoongyi, the only stallion at the riding center.

Put into a new grooming room, Soondoongyi sniffed nervously. She quickly gave him a warm hug around his neck and friendly pats, and brushed the dirt off him.

“They told me last time that horses do not feel pain in the mane,” the soft-hearted girl said, although hesitant to give a strong pull while combing the stallion’s entangled mane.

Then came the 30-minute horseback ride in a marquee with instructor Park and a sidewalker who stayed close to the young rider.

During the last 10 minutes, she was allowed to ride Soondoongyi on her own, free of the sidewalker. She was a bit nervous but in perfect control, synchronized with the brown stallion, together making a beautiful circle on the sandpit.

This is her fifth session at the weekly therapeutic horseback riding class at the center, approximately one-hour by bus from her home in Anyang City, Gyeonggi Province. The trip is long but worth it, said her mother, who always accompanies her to the center and watches the riding session.

The center’s weekend class, 30,000 won ($28.43) per 45-minute session, is the cheapest nationwide. They normally cost 45,000 won or higher at other private riding centers.

“Many riding healing centers in Germany and the United Kingdom are run by local volunteers and donors; this is a sharing culture that Korea has yet to adopt,” the instructor said, adding that he hopes that more people could enjoy the benefits of therapeutic horseback riding.

By Chung Joo-won (
catch table
Korea Herald daum