Horses Help the Disabled to Become Enabled
Equine-assisted therapy, hippotherapy, therapeutic riding ... these are all terms for physical and psychological therapeutic process that utilize horses as co-facilitators in the treatment process.
Therapeutic riding was developed in the 1950s in Europe as a tool for improving the lives of individuals with physical disabilities. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) was founded in 1969 to promote and support therapeutic riding in the United States and Canada.
Individuals with almost any kind of disability, whether temporary or permanent, can benefit from therapeutic riding, which is essentially any physical interaction with horses that is guided by a person trained specifically in this type of equine-assisted therapy.
Research conducted by the American Hippotherapy Association has proven that the multidimensional movements of the horse provide a disabled rider with "the opportunity to explore, control and coordinate posture and movement".
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.
"Positive effects from the movement of the horse can be seen in motor coordination, muscle tone, postural alignment, stiffness/flexibility and strength. Other effects on body systems can and do occur as well. Changes are often seen in the respiratory, cognitive, sensory processing, balance, affective, arousal and speech/language production functions," writes Joann Benjamin, PT, HPCS, in an article on the AHA website.
There are also undeniable, positive psychological benefits to therapeutic riding. First, there's the simple fact of just being outdoors, breathing in the fresh air, hearing the birds - versus being in a doctor's office or physical therapy center. Then there's the interaction with the horse itself. Horses are non-judgmental...they bring no prejudices to the process. Finally, there's the huge boost in self-esteem when someone who has had difficulty controlling their body or mind learns to control a 3,000-pound creature that definitely has a mind of its own.
There is widespread acceptance of hippotherapy within the medical/professional and educational communities. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) all recognize hippotherapy.
Major third party payers throughout the country reimburse for treatment that includes the movement of the horse as a treatment tool. Continuing Education Units (CEU's) are routinely granted for AHA approved and other courses taught by clinicians with recognized expertise in hippotherapy.
Articles on the use of the horse in treatment are published in peer reviewed journals such as Physical Therapy the official journal of the American Physical Therapy Association, Physical and Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, and Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, in addition to numerous articles in clinical publications.
So whether you call it hippotherapy, equine-assisted therapy or therapeutic riding, this is a powerful process that cannot be replicated mechanically. Just about anyone with any type of physical or mental disability can benefit from participating in equine-facilitated therapy and activities.