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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Therapy Helps Kids to Ride High

ST. PETERSBURG -- Twelve-year-old Fatima Muratova looks proud in her chic black riding helmet as she slowly rides stately Kazbek under the watchful guidance of Vladislav Samarsky.

"So stately and big, [horses] turned out to be such sensitive and even timorous creatures," Fatima says, smiling. "I like talking to them and feeding them. They are so strong and forceful at first glance, but in fact they remind me very much of children."

Fatima suffers from compressive spine trauma. She is one of more than 40 people taking therapeutic riding courses, known in Russian as hippotherapy, at the Sunny Island riding center, which opened on St. Peterburg's Krestovsky Island in 1996.

"The range of benefits therapeutic riding offers is immense," says the center's director, Vladislav Samarsky. "This includes significantly increased physical flexibility and much greater self-confidence and self-esteem in our 6- to 28-year-old patients suffering from Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and various spinal traumas."

"Sick children rarely laugh, especially those with limited physical capacities or whose appearances have suffered from their disease," says Fatima's mother, Luiza, an orthopedic specialist. "But I can see my daughter's self-esteem growing. She loves riding - it fills her with joy and optimism."

Three times a week, over 40 young people with disabilities take individual 20-minute riding lessons, run under the guidance of six instructors and 10 horse handlers. The lessons involve a number of exercises designed to increase muscle flexibility, improve motor skills, posture and strength.

Although relatively new, the Sunny Island center has already gained a positive reputation among the city's medical community. Tatyana Fyodorova, formerly deputy head of the adaptive physical training department of the Lesgaft Academy for Physical Education, has, with her students, observed nearly 90 children taking therapeutic riding at the center over the last two years. In addition, instructors from the center are teaching special theoretical courses for the academy's students.

Therapeutic riding, she says, has proved beneficial to the participants in a number of ways. "Cerebral palsy victims improve their physical flexibility - their muscle spasm lessens," Fyodorova says. "Hippotherapy also helps them improve their coordination - including manipulating objects, keeping their equilibrium and maintaining a stable spatial orientation."

One of the reasons the therapy is so effective is that the temperature of a horse's body usually surpasses that of a human's by 1 to 1 1/2 degrees. Certain exercises at the center are executed with no saddle, helping to warm the patient's body up and improve blood circulation in the pelvic organs.

Sunny Island, which enjoys partial support from the city's Prostor Riding Center and St. Petersburg legislators Sergei Shevchenko and Alexei Belusov, initially offered its lessons for free, but has since begun charging parents a small fee as a hedge against the expense of keeping horses and trainers on hand.

According to instructor Olga Sochevanova, the cost of a single lesson is 160 rubles ($5.70), but most parents are charged no more than 50 rubles a month. Although the reduced rate is still too steep for some families, many parents continue to ensure that therapeutic riding remains a part of their children's treatment.

"Therapeutic riding is especially effective when combined with other methods like massage, swimming, gymnastics and speech therapy," explains Galina Levshova, chief doctor at the city's Central District Children's Rehabilitation Center, which provides medical treatment for children suffering from cerebral palsy, asthma and other diseases.

"Both the children who were involved in the horseback-riding lessons and their parents were very happy about this opportunity. Everyone could see how once-helpless children were beginning to get control over their lives. This is very encouraging," Levshova says.

"Therapeutic effects aside, riding horses fills these shy and timid kids with self-assurance. All in all, it helps restore their long-lost belief in their ability to rule their own young lives," Fyodorova says.