Imagine a poised young woman on the back of a magnificent thoroughbred horse. Clad in a black riding helmet, jodhpurs and leather riding boots, seated ramrod straight atop a fine English saddle, the young lady confidently puts her horse through his paces around a large paddock.
With only the subtlest movements of her hands and legs, she is completely in control, making the horse walk, trot and canter while a professional riding coach in the center of the arena offers advice and encouragement. The young lady's riding is almost flawless. Soon, she and her horse will be ready for competition dressage, riding in front of judges.
This scene might be enacted on the estate of an English country squire; or maybe Philadelphia's Main Line suburbs, Long Island's Gold Coast or any similar enclave of the well to do. Or how about in Israel?
From Metula to Eilat, horseback riding in all of its forms has become one of the fastest-growing recreational pastimes in the country. Horse farms and riding clubs are sprouting everywhere, as are shops that sell riding equipment. Almost every town in Israel has at least one horse farm in its vicinity. Bnei Zion and Rishpon in the Sharon have two horse farms apiece. Ra'anana has four.
Children all over Israel are graduating from pony rides to riding lessons, from basic instruction in technical riding to full-fledged dressage, reining and jumping competitions.
"There's a growing awareness of horseback riding in Israel as more and more children take it up as a hobby. It has become much more normal to ride horses than it was only 10 years ago," says Ra'anana Riding Club's Gabi Hirschprung, perhaps Israel's only woman horse farm owner and manager.
Dave Thorpe, a British-born horse trainer in Olesh and Haniel, agrees that the past 10 years have seen an explosion in popularity for horseback riding, not only in Israel but throughout the world.
The pastime's increasing popularity here is being reflected both in the numbers of people involved and the widening range of social groups.
"Maybe horseback riding is still not for everyone. Not everyone can afford it, but more middle-class Israelis are getting into it," observes Isaak Duenyas, owner of the Yakum riding club on Kibbutz Yakum.
Thorpe agrees. "To own a horse can cost anywhere from NIS 10,000 to $100,000. But simply joining a riding club and taking riding lessons is really quite reasonable. The people getting into riding now in Israel come from every race, religion and economic level."
Not surprisingly, many horse farms that previously specialized only in training, selling and boarding horses for private owners have begun to offer horseback riding lessons to satisfy the ever-growing demand.
Is horseback riding safe?
"Horseback riding is an adventurous sport. It is in the same category as skiing, white water rafting and all of those sports where there's a little danger involved," says Hirschprung.
He adds that the growing popularity of horseback riding over the past decade has brought a greater degree of professionalism on the part of riding club management and staff.
"Ten years ago, it was like the wild West. Almost all the horse farms in Israel were small family operations, with the owner's 16-year-old son running the place and shouting orders. Today, that would be unthinkable. These places are now run professionally, with certified trainers and instructors. The Wingate Institute, for example, offers courses for riding instructors leading to certification. All of this has made the sport much safer."
Looking to the future, virtually all horse farm and riding club owners predict a steady increase in horseback riding popularity in Israel, resulting in more farms, more riders and more styles of riding. They also predict the appearance of something that Israel does not have now: professional horse racing.
Amateur horseracing already exists, and Thorpe says that the change to professional racing is inevitable and only a matter of time. Duenyas already trains racehorses that compete at the amateur level. Hirschprung points out that two professional-quality racetracks are under construction in Israel and recommends importing, training and breeding racehorses as a smart investment.
Not everyone is happy about the spread of horse farms and riding clubs throughout Israel. Critics point out that the sport's growing popularity merely underscores the growing social chasm between Israel's rich and poor, as well as the soaring inequalities in incomes.
Not persuaded by the claims of Thorpe and others that people of "every income level" are getting into equestrian sports, detractors argue that the high cost of horseback riding and the locations of most riding clubs - often inaccessible by public transportation - continue to put this form of recreation beyond the reach of most of Israel's poor. Hirschprung acknowledges that "horseback riding will never be a cheap sport." The costs of keeping a horse are high - at least NIS 1,000 a month just to feed the animal, with additional costs for veterinarians and other horse-care specialists.
Horse farms and riding clubs must charge fees that cover these costs. She notes, however, that most horse farms and riding clubs often allow very poor children and youths to take lessons and ride horses in exchange for a few hours of work around the stables. In addition, many riding club owners are looking for ways to subsidize riding lessons for disadvantaged youngsters.
However, one branch of equestrianism has drawn virtually universal admiration. Therapeutic riding for the sick and disabled utilizes horses to treat a variety of illnesses, accident and injury traumas, as well as a wide array of cognitive, emotional and behavioral disorders.
A branch of therapeutic riding, known as hippotherapy (from hippos, the Greek word for "horse") is a highly specialized and as yet controversial form of physical therapy that puts the patient on a horse and uses the horse as therapist. Both hippotherapy and therapeutic riding in general are being used throughout the world, including in Israel, to treat such disorders as autism, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Down's syndrome, traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries, stroke, attention deficit disorders, learning or language disabilities and visual or hearing impairments. Therapeutic riding is also proving its effectiveness in treating emotional disorders such as chronic depression.
Although considered cutting edge, therapeutic riding is not new; it was, in fact, first documented by the ancient Greeks when Orbasis of Lydia noted the therapeutic effects of horseback riding in 600 BCE. In modern times, a French physician in the 1870s began using horseback riding as a treatment for neurological disorders, concluding that the movements of the horse aided his patients' balance, posture, joints and muscles.
In Britain, riding was recognized as a beneficial form of therapy by the beginning of the 20th century, and wounded soldiers were treated with riding therapy during World War I. British physical therapists were experimenting with therapeutic riding in the treatment of virtually all kinds of handicaps by the 1950s. The 1960s saw the arrival and spread of therapeutic riding in the US, and riding therapy spread worldwide in the following decades. By the mid-1980s it had secured a foothold in Israel.
"No machine has ever been invented to take the place of a horse's muscle groups moving from side to side, forward and back and up and down. These closely mimic the human gait," explains Danelle Kern, a physical therapist at Loma Linda University Medical Center and Children's Hospital in California, in an Internet article.
"The very act of trying to hold onto a horse and maintain balance while it is moving tones, stretches and strengthens the rider's muscle groups - the same muscles he or she would use in walking. Moreover, the sensory stimuli provided by a moving horse - its sight, sound, smell, warmth and feel - involve all the rider's senses and help his body to function more normally.
Ardent proponents of therapeutic riding insist that no other form of therapy more effectively or holistically improves a patient's balance, strength, coordination and muscle development, as well as his patience, emotional discipline, self-assurance and self-esteem.
With the steady increase in the number of places offering therapeutic riding both around the world and throughout Israel, the number of children and adults who have been aided by this innovative type of therapy will soon become legion.
'More than just putting someone on a horse'
While therapeutic horseback riding is becoming increasingly widespread in Israel and more horse farms and riding clubs offer this kind of riding, the Therapeutic Riding Center of Israel (TRCI ) stands in a class by itself. A non-profit organization founded in 1986 by a few dedicated volunteers, the center built its reputation during its first 14 years by establishing horseback riding therapy in Israel on a few dunams of land, with very minimal facilities, in Beit Yehoshua.
Thanks to a lot of hard work and some generous contributions from admiring philanthropists, the TRCI was able to construct a 40-dunam state-of-the-art center in Tel Mond in 2000, replete with a 2,000 square meter indoor riding arena. At present, more than 1,800 riding sessions are provided every month.
"The initiative of moving to our new site was to enable more people to get aid through animal-assisted therapy. In its new home, the center has been able to offer several methods of aid, all in one place, to people with various special needs," says TRCI's Gideon Ra'anan.
In other words, the center is no longer just about horses.
During the past five years, the TRCI has expanded its coverage to include a variety of animal-assisted therapies. The TRCI now offers dog therapy, both at the center and at several institutions in Israel, to deal with an array of physical, emotional and behavioral problems. Children with cerebral palsy, for example, have benefited from a combined form of therapy - developed at the center - that uses both horses and dogs in the same treatment session. Dog-assisted therapy has also proven particularly effective in treating physically disabled elderly patients.
The TRCI is also pioneering different types of small-animal therapies, going far beyond the traditional petting zoo by using the animals to address a variety of emotional and behavioral disorders. With financial support from the Jerusalem-based Van Leer Institute, the TRCI has also embarked on a project to treat Arab children with special needs.
The center is affiliated with Tel Aviv University, and its staff is supervised by a professional board including doctors, psychologists and education consultants.
"We are the leading therapeutic riding center in Israel, and our facilities are the best in the world. With physical therapists, occupational therapists, social workers and more, we're about more than just putting someone on a horse," says Ra'anan.
A passion for horses
Gabi Hirschprung declares that "The first religious disappointment in a little girl's life comes from her unanswered prayers for a horse."
In Hirschprung's case, God heard and answered her prayers. As owner and manager of the Ra'anana Riding Club, Hirschprung, who emigrated from the Netherlands eight years ago, now owns more horses than she ever dreamed of, and gets to be around them day and night.
"Since I was eight years old, I've been crazy - really crazy - about horses," she says.
Hirschprung is also quite evidently fond of children, her main clientele, and has endeavored to make hers the most child-friendly and child-safe horse farm in Israel. To begin with, she carefully selects the horses she buys according to their nature.
"Horses are like people," she explains. "There are good ones and bad ones. A bad horse will sense that he's got a young rider who weighs maybe 30 kg., is nervous and has little experience, and will try to take advantage of him. A good horse will actually try to help an inexperienced rider and will even slow down if he feels that the child is not sitting right."
All her instructors are certified, the place is clean, and the tack - saddles, stirrups, straps, bits and harnesses - are scrupulously well maintained. No child is ever allowed on a horse without a properly fitting helmet. The Ra'anana club is also perhaps the only horse farm in Israel that does not smell like one, as Hirschprung imports a special food additive that absorbs the horses' odor.
Horseback riding lessons form the core of what the farm has to offer, with children beginning with careful, one-on-one instruction before graduating to group lessons. The lessons take place in two arenas, one designed for dressage and the other for show jumping, as well as in open farmland behind the riding club. In addition to riding lessons, the club conducts courses in proper horse care. Hirschprung also offers pony rides for small children and cross-country rides for older children and teenagers, provides a small petting zoo, boards horses belonging to private owners, and runs a horseback summer camp for small children.
For teenagers, she offers summer sleepovers on the haystacks, replete with pizza and storytelling, and allows them to "hang out and help out" around the farm throughout the year.
She acknowledges that many of her young clientele come from upper-middle and upper class families. "Horseback riding will never be a cheap sport. It costs a lot of money to keep a horse, to feed and groom it and to keep it healthy. All this makes riding a bit expensive."
Even so, Hirschprung caters to a number of what she calls "working students," who are unable to pay but are allowed to help out around the farm in exchange for riding lessons.
Passionate about her work, Hirschprung hopes to continue for the rest of her life. As she watches a group of small children being led out into the farmland on the backs of ponies, she says, "This is the stuff that wonderful childhood memories are made of - not video games or TV."
For more information about the Therapeutic Riding Center of Israel, call (09) 796-5880 or visit www.trci.org.il
For more information about the Ra'anana Riding Club, call 054-5274742 or visit www.farm4fun.com