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.


Is therapeutic riding the same as hippotherapy?

Therapeutic horseback riding is not hippotherapy. In hippotherapy, the client is not taught to ride the horse; the horse’s movement is used as a tool in a therapy session by a physical therapist, occupational therapist, or speech pathologist. While Trinity Farm does not provide hippotherapy, we are happy to coordinate with your therapist or doctor to get the most out of your lessons.

Do you offer hippotherapy?

We do not currently offer hippotherapy. However, we are happy to coordinate with your or your child’s therapist, social worker, doctor, or school/IEP plan to make sure that we are getting the most out of each session.

What does a therapeutic horseback riding lesson look like?

A therapeutic riding session might not look any different from a typical or traditional riding lesson. The instructor might simply be more aware of physical limitations if the rider has an impairment, disability or condition such as arthritis, cerebral palsy, or cancer or adjust teaching methods as needed for someone who is autistic or Deaf.

A therapeutic riding session might look very different, with leaders and sidewalkers for each rider. But while lessons might look different, the essence is the same for all of our riders regardless of age, ability level, or inclusion in the therapeutic riding program. Generally, instructors will be working towards big picture objectives and goals, whether you want to trail ride with your family, be able to post a trot, jump a course, or simply be able to ride with minimal fatigue for a whole half hour session.

What benefits can one receive from riding and equine assisted activities?

Physical benefits can include greater muscle strength, tone, and coordination – sitting on a horse is strenuous work. Because of the nature of horseback riding itself, sessions also naturally include work with both fine and gross motor skills, proprioceptive input, and sequencing. There is also a bond that grows between horse and rider; horseback riding tends to grow confidence and build independent skills – and it’s fun!

Does insurance cover therapeutic riding?

Insurance coverage varies widely. Some insurances cover therapeutic riding, some only cover hippotherapy, and some do not cover equine therapy at all. Please call your insurance and ask about your coverage! We will make every effort to help you provide the necessary documentation to your insurance provider.

What if I don’t want to be in the therapeutic riding program but have a physical issue that may affect my riding?

Our therapeutic riding program does not operate separately from our lesson program; all of our riders are included in as many activities as they wish to participate in. If you have a condition or disability that could have a precaution or contraindication for horseback riding, we will ask for an evaluation from your doctor or physical therapist. However, because we do offer therapeutic riding lessons, we are an ideal facility for someone who may be cautious about getting into horseback riding because of an older injury, mobility issue, or degenerative condition.

What is equine assisted learning?

Equine facilitated learning uses the horse to teach unmounted skills or knowledge. It might be horse related – observing what the horse eats in the paddock, helping prepare feed for the day and then researching supplements and grain online and writing a report – or non-horse related – encouraging the student read a book to the horse to encourage literacy. It could be a lesson in confidence, leading the horse over an obstacle course.