What is Therapeutic Horseback Riding?

The use of the horse as a therapeutic tool has existed for centuries, but therapeutic horseback riding as a discipline began in earnest in the 1950’s. Started in Europe by a polio survivor and Olympian named Lis Hartel, therapeutic horseback riding quickly gained acceptance abroad and spread to North America shortly after (read more about the beginnings of the therapeutic horseback riding movement).

Influencing not just physical health, but also emotional and mental well-being, therapeutic horseback riding is recognized as beneficial for many people, including those with Asperger’s, Autism, Down Syndrome, ADD, arthritis, multiple-sclerosis, cerebral palsy, cancer, abuse survivors, veterans, and many more. Find out more about possible benefits from therapeutic horseback riding and equine facilitated learning sessions (EFL).

In therapeutic horseback riding, the focus is on teaching equestrian based skills in order to contribute “positively to [the participant’s] cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being” (PATH Int’l., 2012). Today, therapeutic riding is just one part of a wide umbrella of equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAAT) that provide recreation and education to thousands of people.

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship Int’l (formerly NARHA) is the largest certifying organization for therapeutic horseback riding and EAAT instructors and facilities in the United States. Instructors certified through PATH Int’l. have gone through a comprehensive series of both written and practical exams and workshops and are required to complete 20 hours of continuing education each year.

Therapeutic Horseback Riding & Equine Facilitated Learning

As part of our lesson program, we offer therapeutic horseback riding lessons and equine facilitated learning (EFL) sessions for children and adults with a PATH Int’l. certified instructor. Participants in our therapeutic riding and EFL program learn equestrian based skills and have the opportunity to ride and compete in our hunter/jumper program. Leaders and sidewalkers are provided as necessary for stability and safety.

What can therapeutic horseback riding do for me?

Physically, the motion of the horse mimics the way that our hips move when we walk. A half hour or more on a horse weekly can 20130406_mee_00097 encourage straightness and build muscle and balance in the trunk and legs in all riders. Hypertonia, or high muscle tone, tends to relax during a therapeutic horseback riding session and hypotonia, low muscle tone, can also be improved.

Perhaps most importantly, horses are responsive and reflect our feelings and body language.  Horses do not judge; they do not distinguish between a rider that uses assistive devices and one that does not.  The relationship that develops between a rider and their horse can be an amazing thing.  Many of us who ride attest to the fact that we often feel better just by being around the horses. Riding also encourages independence.  There is nothing like being in a working partnership with a thousand pound animal and knowing you are the one in charge.  Additionally, riding a horse is fun – it’s much more motivating to do sit-ups on a horse than on a mat!

As the rider learns riding skills in therapeutic horseback riding or participates in equine assisted learning (EAL) activities, instructors try to incorporate activities that will naturally address things like gross and fine motor skills, body awareness (proprioception), and balance and coordination (for example, crossing over the midline). Many of these things happen naturally as you learn to brush the horse, buckle the girth to the saddle, or stretch your leg over the horse to mount.