Thanks to one Otterbein University professor, Westerville Special Olympics athletes were able to add a new sport to their repertoire this spring.

Thanks to one Otterbein University professor, Westerville Special Olympics athletes were able to add a new sport to their repertoire this spring.

In a semesterlong course at Otterbein, students in the "Equestrian 2910: Therapeutic Riding" class worked with area Special Olympics athletes, teaching them basic equestrian skills.

It was the first semester spent with riders with disabilities, and Otterbein assistant professor Steffanie Burk said it was a success for both the students and the athletes.

"I think they've (both) really enjoyed it," she said. "The students got the chance to teach the riders themselves....I think the students thought it was really rewarding."

Burk got the idea for the class while working at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, where she taught a class called Equine Assisted Activities. When she came to Otterbein, she brought the idea with her.

"I put through an experimental class called therapeutic riding where college students got to work with Special Olympics Westerville equestrian riders during their lab periods," she said.

Although the program was delayed by harsh weather in the early weeks, eventually riders got the hang of the basic concepts taught in the class.

Burk said of the eight riders, the youngest learner was 11 and the oldest was 27. Whereas some were nervous at first, they all enjoyed it by the end.

"It took me 15 minutes to get (one student) on the horse; she was scared to get on," Burk said. "By our last day, she was like, 'hurry up horse,' and jumped right on."

The therapy isn't just about having a good time, however. Burk said there have been several studies on the benefits of the activity for riders with both physical and mental disabilities.

"More research needs to be done, but studies have shown that the movement of a horse is similar to movement while walking," she said. "So for someone with a physical disability who uses a wheelchair, that's beneficial for them to get that kind of motion."

But in Otterbein's case, the benefits were more mental.

"For these riders we had, they all had more mental disabilities," Burk said. "They were pretty independent physically, so I would say that for these guys, the benefit is more social and recreational."

The students led the athletes in a "fun show" the last day of class and awarded ribbons for standouts, bringing the semester to a close.

Burk is in the process of adding equine therapy as a minor at Otterbein, and hopes to have it established before next semester.