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An analysis of the experiences of children with cerebral palsy in therapeutic horse riding.

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This study utilised a qualitative interpretive approach to investigate the subjective experiences of six children with cerebral palsy who participated in a therapeutic horse riding intervention programme over a two-year period. Data was collected through a triangulation of methods and sources of data in the form of proxy reports from teachers, parents and therapists, and participant observations on my part. Research in the field of disability and rehabilitation remains largely ungrounded with respect to formalised theorising around concepts such as strengths, capabilities, and well-being. In attempting to address this gap, the nascent sub-discipline of positive psychology was identified as a field that holds significant research utility. Arguably, its keynote contribution entails directing researchers and practitioners in the field of disability and rehabilitation to the aim of building, reinforcing and extending disabled individuals' strengths in order to optimise their functioning. Consistent with existing work, this study found that the participants' lives were characterised by experiences of difference and marginalisation in relation to non-disabled individuals. More striking, however, was the finding that they were subject to experiences of difference and othering in relation to their disabled peers. This group dynamic seemed to be accounted for in terms of a hierarchy of similarities and differences with respect to their capabilities for communication and motor functioning. Further, the findings suggested that the participants tended to utilise their bodies, the site of their impairments, to engage with their environments and social others in their own idiosyncratic and agentic ways. By virtue of the tendency to negotiate and at times transcend their impaired physicalities, the participants were perceived as functionally autonomous, which worked to challenge prevailing stereotypes with regard to individuals with profound forms of physical disability. Importantly, such features impacted upon the degree and quality of their engagements with their physical and psychosocial environments in significant ways. In addition, in terms of the therapeutic riding activities engaged with during the course of this study, the participants came to experience their bodies as bodies that work. This seemed to have had positive implications for how they felt about their bodies and themselves. An enhanced sense of personal worth also tended to minimise their experiences of their bodies as impaired and dis-abled. In this way, their participation in therapeutic horse riding facilitated the children's experiences of themselves as more than disabled, thereby indicating the emancipatory potential of participating in this form of intervention. Moreover, it was noted that the limited body of existing, largely quantitatively oriented research in the field of therapeutic horse riding has often been methodologically wanting. As disconcerting was the noticeable absence of theorising around the mechanisms and processes by which therapeutic horse riding effected changes. It was therefore fitting to draw on theoretical frameworks within psychology to delineate possible mechanisms and processes by which participation in therapeutic horse riding could potentially effect subtle, meaningful shifts in the everyday functioning and psychological well-being of children with disabilities. This study contributed to existing research within the field of disability and rehabilitation through its efforts to yield "thick descriptions" and "thick interpretations" in combination with the theory-laden validation of findings around the everyday subjective experiences of children with disabilities.


Thesis (Ph.D.)-University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 2009.


Cerebral palsy--Treatment., Horsemanship--Therapeutic use., Theses--Psychology.