Animal therapy in an Israeli-Arab town: No horsing around

Riding at the first therapeutic school in an Arab town

BSHAR HAJ stands tall in the saddle. ‘Now horses have become a part of our family’s life. (photo credit: Courtesy)
BSHAR HAJ stands tall in the saddle. ‘Now horses have become a part of our family’s life.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On a recent afternoon, a herd of cattle ambled across a field while inside a riding area, several children – including those with various physical and mental challenges – rode horses at the first therapeutic riding school in an Israeli-Arab town.
The Hurodj Horse Farm in Jadeidi-Makr, a few kilometers east of Acre in the Western Galilee, is a family-run business, owned and operated by Muhammad Hudroj and his wife, Gihan. The family opened the horse farm in 1999 and introduced the therapeutic riding program 10 years later. The program, which is covered by the National Health Insurance system, draws both Jewish and Arab children from the surrounding areas – some who come for therapeutic riding, and others who train for competitions and horse shows.
Hudroj, 44, has been fascinated by horses since he was a young boy growing up in Acre. His father refused to buy him a horse, but a cousin granted Hudroj’s wish and gifted him his first horse.
Hudroj loved riding his horse so much that he sometimes skipped school to go to horse races and shows. He eventually become a top champion of riding Arabian horses in Israel.
In a recent interview at his horse farm, Hudroj said there was never a time that he was not with a horse. He still rides and trains with one of his sons, 13-year-old Tarik, for endurance riding – a trek in which riders travel 80 kilometers on horseback. Hudroj hopes that they will soon go to Europe to do a 160-km. endurance ride.
Gihan, a 42-year-old Lod native, said that when she married her husband, she had no connection to horses. She used to work and her “husband would take the money to buy horses.”
While raising their five children, who have always been involved with the farm, Gihan become more involved with helping her husband with their 50 horses. Gihan received certification to be a therapeutic riding instructor and occasionally instructs children, but she is usually found running the business in the office.
The farm has four instructors, including Orit Klein, 36. Klein is both the only female and the only Jewish instructor and has worked at the farm since 2009. Klein grew up in the heart of Tel Aviv but always loved nature and animals, especially horses. She started riding when she was 10 and competed in horse shows for several years before studying special education in Haifa at Gordon College and becoming certified as a therapeutic riding instructor at the Wingate Institute. She has worked with hundreds of children since.
According to a recent clinical study, American researcher Michelle Howell Smith found that equine therapy significantly reduced anger, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety. Other research shows that horses can stimulate the tactile senses of children with autism to foster possible communication. Riding can also help people develop muscular, skeletal and ocular skills, as well as improve memory and attention.
Klein said that horses serve as silent teachers because of their sensitivity: they reflect the emotional energy of the person with them. Horses respond to humans easily and can develop both trust and a sense of connection – the very things that children with emotional disorders need. Sitting on a large, powerful animal can also give children confidence and a sense of mastery and control. Some children learn to overcome their fears, while others learn to master their aggression.
Klein recounted that a student who could walk only with the aid of two crutches came to her. The rhythm of the horse’s gait gave the child a sense of flexibility and movement. The boy went from using two crutches to using one. Today, he can now walk without crutches.
Children also learn other skills in the riding arena that might be difficult for them to learn in the classroom. For example, Klein said, the calmness of horses makes children focus better. She can teach math while a child rides the horse. (“One horse has four legs; how many legs do two horses have?” she used as an example.)
Montha Haj, a resident of Jadeide-Makr, said that her oldest son began going to the horse farm in second grade because he was struggling with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). The therapy helped him so much that he no longer experiences learning problems in school. Now 14, Haj’s son still rides horses at the farm – not for therapeutic reasons, but as a hobby.
Haj said that her two younger sons, as well as her seven-year-old daughter, all ride horses there. Her sons volunteer at the farm, feeding, cleaning and grooming the horses.
“Learning to ride a horse was like a miracle for my son,” Haj said. “And now horses have become a part of our family’s life.”
It took time for Hudrodj and his staff to attract any local riders. In the Arab sector, Hudrodj said, people were not aware of the benefits of equine therapy. Hudrodj and Klein traveled to speak to physicians, teachers and educators in boarding schools to explain the program and its benefits.
Gihan said that at first, people were also confused by a religious Muslim woman on a horse. She has since explained that there is nothing in the Koran that prevents women from riding.
In addition to the Wingate course, there are several other institutes to obtain therapeutic riding certification around Israel. The Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association, located at the Hadassah Youth Village outside of Netanya, has special one-year courses for therapeutic riding instruction. It also runs workshops and clinics, including vocational training and high school matriculation courses. The Tel Mond-based Therapeutic Riding Center of Israel works with more than 3,000 children each year and offers therapeutic interventions for victims of trauma, including people with head and spinal injuries, hearing disabilities and people who are legally blind. In cooperation with Bar-Ilan University, the Center also conducts research.
Klein said that one unexpected bonus to her teaching at the farm is that she has learned Arabic – her fourth language, after Hebrew, English and Portuguese. Although working with children on horses is a tremendous responsibility because of potential injuries or distress, Klein “thoroughly enjoys” her job. She said she likes taking children out of the riding arena to explore the nearby woods and fields. Over the past 10 years, she said she has experienced holidays and celebrations in the town, establishing “a deep connection” not only with the horses and students, but also with the Hudrodj family.
“Even though it’s very hard work, it is wonderful to have a job doing something I love,” Klein said.