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Equine-assisted Therapies


By Leigh Ballard

Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.” As it turns out, there’s plenty that’s good not only for the inside but for the outside too. While it has long been known that horses have a positive emotional effect on people, the physical effects of horseback riding are becoming more recognized in medical and other treatment communities. In recent years, equine-assisted therapies have been put into use for people with a wide assortment of mental and physical disabilities. The term, “equine-assisted therapies” is an umbrella term which covers a range of therapies for emotional, psychological, physical and other impairments. Generally, these therapies are broken into two categories: Therapeutic Riding and Hippotherapy.

Therapeutic riding is an activity in which participants have both physically and psychologically healing activities and therapies within the context of learning to ride or work with a horse. Interacting with a horse is a pleasant learning experience for them, which provides a way for them to grow in many ways, both physically and emotionally or psychologically.

Hippotherapy is a treatment which uses the movement of the horse to help the patient in areas of motor and sensory development and/or rehabilitiation.  The horse influences the patient’s movement, rather than the patient trying to ride or control the horse. Hippothereapy literally means “treatment with the help of a horse,” from the Greek word “hippos” meaning “horse.”  The movement of the horse is used as a tool, like other therapy tools such as balls, scooters, bars, etc. The variability of the horse’s movement,  the rhythm and so forth, and the ability of the therapist to modify these movements according to the patient’s needs, is where the horse is very useful.

Hippotherapy is a medical strategy. It employs specially trained and certified physical therapists, speech pathologists,  and occupational therapists to focus on specific physical and other treatments which can be aided by the horse’s movement. The movement from the horse provides a foundation for improved neurological functioning and sensory processing. Because the horse’s gait simulates that of a human, and the patient is following this movement that the horse creates, the patient’s muscles benefit from this motion. While mounted, the patient uses core muscles and overall balance. Often other muscles of the body such as in the arms, legs, hands, neck, etc. are also strengthened while using hippotherapy.

The stimulation of the brain carries over into other areas of brain functioning because neuro-muscular improvement translates into other daily activities. Because a foundation is established to improve neurological function and sensory processing, this can be generalized to a wide range of daily activities and therapy goals. Hippotherapy focuses on specific goals: for examples, improved balance, posture, gross and fine motor skills are a few of the goals of hippotherapy. Speech and language are improved by communication with the horse as well as with the therapists about the horse. For example, during a speech therapy session the therapist may be working on pronunciation of different sounds. The patient may be asked to communicate with the horse or the therapist by using words such as "whoa" and "walk on." Hippotherapy works to improve cognitive skills, too. Specific riding skills can help improve a patient's focus, concentration, and over-all disposition.

In addition to physical treatments, equine-assisted therapies often contribute to better psychological and emotional functioning. Troubled youth have often been put into outdoor programs involving horses. And equine-assisted psychotherapy and physical therapy are increasingly used as treatment strategies to help war veterans. Large numbers of returning war veterans have been wounded not only physically, but also mentally, due to active war duty.  It is well documented that they often find themselves struggling to return to a normal life after their service. Some of the problems seen in the veteran population are: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, depression, anxiety, amputation, and physical limitations due to combat injuries. Equine assisted therapy programs for veterans include physical benefits such as: normalized muscle tone, increased range of motion, developing strength, coordination and fine/gross motor skills, and emotional benefits such as building confidence and self-esteem, and instilling patience and emotional management.

Equine assisted therapy programs are being found useful with these veterans because of the intangible calming psychological effects to which Winston Churchill alludes, as well as the physical benefits of hippotherapy mentioned above.  In these programs, the veteran works with a horse to establish an emotional connection of trust. Often this involves grooming and care, other times it involves actually learning to ride the horse. Other programs focus on the physical aspects of veteran rehabilitation.

Horses and equine assisted therapies are being recognized as valuable tools to help many people achieve improvement in a wide range of areas of physical and emotional health.


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