When I began working with horses, little did I know I would watch a boy with Cerebral Palsy walk for the first time and, later, hear a boy with speech delay produce his first audible word in therapy…at a barn. I will never forget my blind student who could ride a horse independently, as long as there was a volunteer standing in each corner of the arena to give her an awareness of the fences by their voices. I never expected to witness a child develop into a responsible and caring teenager because she mucked stalls in exchange for riding lessons.

Horseback riding overflows with benefits whether incorporated as a treatment strategy for therapy or recreation for individuals with or without disabilities.

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Horseback riding promotes increased mobility, strength, coordination, balance, postural control, communication and cognition. The pelvis of a horse moves almost identically to the pelvis of a human. When walking, the human pelvis typically moves anterior to posterior (front to back), lateral (side-to-side) and rotation (circles). When a horse walks, their pelvis moves in the same three dimensions. A horse’s movement is rhythmic, repetitive and fluid. Their body heat and movement helps decrease spasticity in tight muscles. Riding on the back of a horse simulates human walking more accurately than any other therapy tool known to man. When a horse moves the rider must activate their muscles in order to stay upright and centered. Stronger core muscles lead to fine motor skills and speech production.

For children with sensory challenges, horseback riding can provide nearly every type of sensory input all at once. When the horse walks or trots, the rider gets vestibular input (movement sensation felt by fluid moving in the inner ears). Each time a hoof hits the ground, the rider feels proprioceptive input (sensation of body position felt by pressure to muscles and joints). Most horses walk about 60 steps per minute. That’s approximately 2,500 inputs per average therapy session! Riders feel tactile input (touch sensations to the skin) when petting the horse, touching their mane and from the equipment they are riding on. When the horse is in motion, visual input (sight) is received from the moving environment. Auditory input (sounds) include the rhythmical clippity-clop of hooves, a horse’s whinny and birds chirping in the distance.

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Hippotherapy is one of many treatment strategies utilized by licensed physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists. If you just visualized a hippopotamus getting a massage, you would not be the first. “Hippotherapy” is a weird word! “Hippos” is Greek for horse. Just as hippopotamus translates to “water horse” in Greek, hippotherapy means “therapy with the help of a horse.”

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Therapists who incorporate hippotherapy into their treatment sessions use horses as a therapy tool, just as a therapist might use a yoga ball or swing.Therapists direct the movement of the horse, the equipment used and the position of the patient to achieve specific results. The goal is to help each person reach individualized functional goals such as going down stairs, zipping a jacket and pronouncing words with the “r” sound articulately. Just about anything accomplished in a clinic therapy setting can be done while the child is on a horse. Physical, occupational and speech therapy services incorporating hippotherapy can be covered by medical insurance.

Hippotherapy is evidenced-based and research-proven. Recent studies have concluded hippotherapy has a positive effect on the functional motor performance of children with cerebral palsy, decreases spasticity in patients with spinal cord injury and improves postural stability in people with multiple sclerosis.

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Hippotherapy can be appropriate for individuals with mild to severe disabilities ages two and up. Horseback riding is NOT safe for those with uncontrolled seizures, hip dislocations, severe osteoarthritis, some spinal fusions or atlantoaxial instability (present in approximately 15% of people with Down Syndrome). Allergies and sunlight sensitivities should also be taken into consideration.

To find a facility that provides therapy incorporating hippotherapy as a treatment strategy, visit the American Hippotherapy Association.

Adaptive Riding

Many facilities that provide therapy incorporating hippotherapy also offer adaptive riding. Adaptive riding lessons are taught by instructors certified under the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH). Unlike hippotherapy, the goal of adaptive riding is not functional outcomes but to teach individuals with special needs how to ride a horse.

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The instructors are trained to safely assist students with mounting and dismounting, whether using a ramp and/or an adapted method for getting on a horse. They are skilled at breaking down riding skills for people with different learning abilities. Adaptive riding equipment, such as reins with handles, may be utilized to assist those with physical challenges. Trained volunteers (horse leaders and side-walkers) help keep the students safe.

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Adaptive riding can be appropriate for individuals with mild to moderate disabilities ages four and up. Finding a center that provides safe adaptive riding with certified instructors, properly trained volunteers, and suitable, well-cared for horses is key.

To find a PATH accredited adaptive riding center near you, visit the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship.

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Typical Riding

People with special needs are not the only ones who can reap rewards from horseback riding. Everyone can benefit from the balance, strength and coordination demands of riding horses, as well as the sensory experience.Horseback riding can be a fun way to exercise, learn responsibility, gain work ethic and sportsmanship skills and increase self-esteem.

Standard horseback riding lessons are ideal for those who are developing typically. They are also an option for people with mild disabilities who do not require adaptive strategies or equipment to safely interact with horses and learn. Seeking lessons with well-trained instructors and horses is important, no matter the person’s abilities. The Certified Horsemanship Association accredits facilities and certifies instructors for teaching English, Western, driving and vaulting (gymnastics on horseback).

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To find a certified riding instructor near you, visit the Certified Horsemanship Association.

Horseback riding is beneficial whether it is incorporated into therapy treatment, used as a recreation opportunity for individuals with disabilities, or is pursued as an extracurricular activity for typically developing children.

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Amy Bio Photo Amy grew up riding horses and discovered her passion for individuals with disabilities when she began volunteering at an adaptive riding center at age 15. Soon after, she became a certified instructor under the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship and taught adaptive riding lessons to children with disabilities. Amy earned her Master of Arts degree in occupational therapy from the University of Southern California in 2011. She performed a 13 week internship at the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy and completed her level I hippotherapy coursework from the American Hippotherapy Association. Whether in a clinic, school classroom or arena, Amy is passionate about helping children improve their fine motor, gross motor and sensory processing skills to achieve full potential in their home, school and community.

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