Therapeutic riding is an emerging field in which horses are used as a tool for physical therapy, emotional growth and learning. Many riders experience a connection to the horse that few sports can create. For those riders who cannot walk, the horse is their vehicle of transport. Not only does this help raise their self-esteem but it also teaches them essential skills. It improves balance, creates trust and creates a friendship between rider and horse.

The benefits of horseback riding are as numerous as the types of disabilities and conditions served. Research shows that students who participate in therapeutic riding can experience physical, emotional and mental rewards. Because horseback riding gently and rhythmically moves the rider’s body in a manner similar to a human gait, riders with physical disabilities often show improvement in flexibility, balance and muscle strength.

For individuals with mental or emotional disabilities, the unique relationship formed with the horse can lead to increased confidence, patience and self-esteem. The sense of independence found on horseback benefits all who ride. The therapeutic qualities of horseback riding are recognized by many medical professionals, including the American Physical Therapy Association and the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Equine-assisted activities, including therapeutic riding, driving, and vaulting are not therapy but sport and recreational activities that have therapeutic value. Equine-assisted activities, therapeutic riding is usually most effective in children because of the nature of mental, and social development. However, equine-assisted activities produce very favorable improvements in riders of all ages.

There are hundreds of programs around the world as well many organizations dedicated to the various forms of equine-assisted activities. “Therapeutic riding” refers specifically to horseback riding lessons for people with special needs in which the therapeutic benefits of riding are a result of learning riding skills. Licensed therapists who incorporate the horse as one of their tools during therapy sessions conduct equine-assisted therapy. This is different from therapeutic riding where the rider influences the movement of the horse. Forms of equine-assisted therapy include hippotherapy, in which a certified therapist uses the horse as a therapeutic tool, and equine-facilitated psychotherapy in which a certified mental health professional uses the horse in various ways for therapeutic benefit. Hippotherapy is a treatment strategy used by occupational, physical and speech therapists. The movement of the horse is carefully modulated to influence neuromuscular changes in the client.

Therapeutic riding can provide benefits to individuals challenged with:

  • Amputation
  • Autism
  • Behavioral Disability
  • Brain Injury
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Developmental Delay
  • Down’s Syndrome
  • Emotional Disability
  • Prader Willi Syndrome
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Learning Disability
  • Mental Retardation
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Seizure Disorder
  • Spinal Cord Injury
  • Stroke
  • Visual Impairment

Benefits: A horse’s gait, similar to the human walk, helps strengthen spine and pelvic muscles, improves posture and coordination, and increases joint mobility. Along with physical therapeutic benefits, horseback riding gives people a feeling of control, a sense of accomplishment and increased self-esteem.

Physical Benefits:

  • Stretching of tight or spastic muscles
  • Decreased spasticity
  • Increased range of motion of the joints
  • Reduction of abnormal movement patterns
  • Improved respiration and circulation
  • Improved appetite and digestion
  • Sensory integration.

Psychological Benefits:

  • Improved self-confidence
  • Increased interest in the outside world
  • Increased interest in one’s own life
  • Development of patience
  • Emotional control and self-discipline
  • Sense of normality
  • Expansion of the focus of control

Social Benefits:

  • Friendship
  • Increased experiences
  • Enjoyment

Educational Benefits:

  • Remedial Reading
  • Remedial Math
  • Sequencing, patterning and motor planning
  • Improved eye-hand coordination
  • Visual spatial perception
  • Differentiation

Sources: Equest Maine, American Equestrian

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