Therapeutic horse riding uses horses as facilitators to treat various physical and behavioral disorders. Horses are unique partners to occupational and physical therapies, interacting with disabled people of all ages to promote health and well-being.
The horse's walk mimics a human’s walk. For riders, this stimulates the body and mind with every step. The rider can match the horse's rhythmic pelvic and limb movements, and the two become a team.
As the horse takes a step, the warmth and movement of its back help the rider’s muscles to stretch and develop. The motion cultivates balance, as it requires the use of core muscles, coordination, and head and neck control.
New and expanding research into equine-assisted therapies addresses the physical benefits of working with horses.
Data suggest that participants with cerebral palsy can improve their walking ability with a year of weekly therapy visits. This study also concluded that the quality of life for their caregivers was enhanced as a result of this progress.
Improvements to the rider's reach, trunk stability, and head stability have been achieved by therapeutic horse riding. These improvements may remain after ending therapeutic riding and can carry on to influence other physical tasks.
Other physical benefits may be gained from equine-assisted therapy:
- Range of motion
- Cardiovascular stimulation
- Gross motor skills
- Fine motor skills
The non-physical benefits of horse therapeutic riding
Interacting with horses can also increase independence, confidence, and problem-solving skills. Horses are sensitive and gentle creatures that respond and interact without judgment. Spending time with horses helps to promote overall changes in a person’s cognition, emotions, behavior, and social skills. Both unmounted and mounted interactions nurture these non-physical benefits.
The activity of riding and any games played during a session improve memory, concentration, and problem-solving skills. Behaviors and emotions evolve as the relationship between horse and student increases awareness, confidence, mood regulation, impulse control, and relaxation. Social skills like cooperation and empathy improve as teamwork develops between the horse, rider, therapist, volunteers, and new friends.
Continuing research supports equine therapy as a way to improve cognition and behavior. Additional research speaks to the positive changes seen in young participants with Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD.
Other non-physical benefits may be gained as well:
- Reduced stress
- Improved listening skills
- Improved moods
- Clearer speech
- Greater sense of personal responsibility
- Greater empathy
- Improved self-image
How are horses matched to participants?
Selecting a horse to match a student's individual needs is essential. Every therapy horse must be calm, curious, and kind, but each horse has a unique personality. Horses are matched with specific students for the best learning experience.
A horse's body is also taken into account when matches are being made. The height of a therapy horse matters, as does the width of the horse's back. Every participant must feel safe and comfortable on their horse and physically align with its size and width.
A horse's movement style also influences its partnership with a rider. The length and bounce of a horse's walk and trot can vary from smooth-as-silk to more undulating and swinging. Professional horse handlers and therapists help find the best horses for each rider, assuring that a horse's gait is suitable for its partner.
Making therapeutic horseback riding fun
The effectiveness of walking and trotting horses during therapeutic riding comes from the fun and games woven into each session. This is done in a non-clinical setting, where every participant can interact with the others.
Games and stimulating activities designed to support physical and mental health are filled with colors, counting, letters, communication, and fun. Sessions may be for an individual or a group, tailored to each participant's needs.
A game or task may involve steering a therapy horse, asking it to halt, or finding a new gait. There may be items at the rider’s level to count, move, identify, or use for signaling. These activities stimulate proprioception and motor coordination in the body, as they challenge the core to stay balanced. The mind is engaged with problem-solving, comprehension, and working to enhance communication skills.
There may be opportunities for some participants to engage in unmounted activities, too, centered on grooming and handling a horse. Communication and relationship building with a horse on the ground level fosters trust, patience, and understanding through the non-verbal body language used by both the participant and the horse.
Additional benefits of therapeutic horseback riding
Part of the joy of horses is interacting with them in their environment.
Equestrian facilities have large spaces, outdoor areas, fresh air, and natural lighting. This type of therapy session is very different from a typical clinical office setting. There are many sounds, smells, and sights to experience that are unique to horse farms.
Families and friends of participants will also interact with horse experts, the families of other participants, and volunteers. A strong community built around horses is not limited to the students.
How do I find therapeutic horse riding near me?
Can anyone participate?
Some diagnoses, ages, and even allergies preclude a participant from being a candidate for equine therapy. The primary caregivers, therapists, and horse therapy staff can further guide you.
Is horse experience necessary?
Horse experience is not necessary to join a program. You will likely find that everyone involved in a horse therapy program is in some stage of learning about horse care and riding.
Are the horses trained specifically for therapeutic horseback riding?
Yes! Horses must be comfortable with sounds, movements, different saddles and pads, ramps, disability aids, and changes in the rider's position, to name a few. It takes a special horse to become a therapy horse.