Therapy Through Horses

Horseback riding is considered to be one of the most unique and beneficial forms of therapy for individuals with disabilities.

It has been proven that a horse’s gait, which is similar to a human’s walk, can help strengthen pelvic and spine muscles, as well as improve a person’s posture, coordination and joint mobility.

The horses are either ridden or driven, which allows people with disabilities a way to travel to places that are otherwise inaccessible by wheelchairs, crutches and walkers.

Integrating horseback riding into a camp program is beneficial for participants in providing rehabilitation for both physical and mental disabilities.

Although it may prove costly in the beginning, the end results make it all worthwhile.

For individuals with mental disabilities, horseback riding can improve many important brain functions, such as greater sensory-seeking, sensory sensitivity, social motivation and the lessening of inattention, distractibility and sedentary behaviors.

A.H. Fine defines animal-assisted therapy as “using animals within a goal-oriented setting to implement treatment, and has been shown to significantly benefit cognitive, psychological, and social domains” (Fine, 2006).

The Effects On Autism
When using therapeutic horseback riding for individuals with autism, social skills and motor skills can be improved. Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by deficits in social, communication and motor-skills functioning (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).

A study by Margaret M. Bass, Catherine A. Duchowny and Maria M. Llabre titled “The Effect of Therapeutic Horseback Riding on Social Functioning in Children with Autism,” proposes that “therapeutic horseback riding may be effective in improving social cognition in children with autism spectrum disorders.”

Their study used 34 children registered with the Agency of Persons with Disabilities who were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Diagnosis. These children and their parents consented to a 12-week therapeutic horseback-riding session, with a pre- and post-test.

The measures for these tests consisted of the Social Responsiveness Scale and the Sensory Profile. The tests assess the social functioning after the tests are analyzed. The test for Social Responsiveness Scale (Constantino, 2002) used a 4-point Likert scale that consisted of a 65-item questionnaire with points ranging from 0 (never true) to 3 (almost always true). These questions focused on social motivation and social communication.

The Sensory Profile (Dunn, 1999) is a 125-item questionnaire given to parents or teachers. It used a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (always) to 5 (never). The questions addressed the overall social functioning of children who show problems in modulation, sensory processing and behavioral and emotional responses.

The information was gathered by the administrative staff at the Good Hope Equestrian Training Center in Miami, Fla. Each child who took part in the treatment group received a therapeutic riding session for an hour a week for 12 weeks. The instructors helped participants mount and dismount the horses, and used a process aimed to stimulate verbal communication and vestibular processing.

After a successful mount, the subjects performed a warm-up in order to get the body ready for the riding session. After the warm-up, a session of riding skills and horsemanship activities followed, in order to target participants’ communication skills and fine-motor coordination.

The study found there was a significant increase between the pre- and post-testing for the experimental group. Participants with autism showed an increase in social motivation and sensory sensitivity, as well as decreased inattention and distractibility.

The multisensory nature of horseback riding created a positive and stimulating effect directly associated with the presence and movement of a horse.

For Those With Cerebral Palsy
Another group of people that can be helped by hippotherapy--which is the movement of horses for therapy--consists of individuals who suffer from cerebral palsy. A study was conducted by William Bend, Nancy H. McGibbon and Kathryn L. Grant titled “Improvements in Muscle Symmetry in Children with Cerebral Palsy After Equine-Assisted Therapy (Hippotherapy).”

The researchers evaluated the effect of horse movement on muscle activity in children with spastic cerebral palsy. They used a pre-test/post-test control group with 15 children, whose ages ranged from 4 to 12 years.

The testing took place in Arizona and used randomization for the participants to spend either eight minutes doing hippotherapy or eight minutes astride a stationary barrel. The study used a remote-surface electromyography to measure muscle activity of the trunk and upper legs.

During hippotherapy, there was a significant improvement in the symmetry of muscle activity. The conclusion was that eight minutes of hippotherapy a day results in improved symmetry in muscle activity in individuals with spastic cerebral palsy (December 2003).

The Payoff
The benefits of therapeutic horseback riding for individuals with disabilities (from ages 2 to 70) outweigh the costs. Horses also provide a newfound freedom for those who interact with them. It doesn’t matter if the disability is physical, cognitive, behavioral or emotional, the personal accomplishments of riding provide a boost in self-worth and confidence. This feeling is priceless when it comes to making children with a disability feel better about themselves and their environment.

The downturn in the economy has caused many horse breeders either to sell their livestock or to invest them into developmental programs. This chain of events has created a bright light for hippotherapy programs.

Although the upkeep for horses can be costly, the opportunity to find donors as well as inexpensive horses can assist in offsetting the upfront costs of this program.

A child should not be deprived of happiness and movement because of a disability. With hippotherapy-based programming, that child can have a new sense of freedom that boosts confidence and self-efficacy, and improves self-worth. One cannot put a price on that.

Works Cited
Bass, M., Duchowny, C., and Llabre, M. “The Effect of Therapeutic Horseback Riding on Social Functioning in Children with Autism.” Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders [serial online]. September 2009; 39(9):1261-1267. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, Massachusetts.. Accessed November 29, 2010.

Constantino, J. N. (2002). The Social Responsiveness Scale. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.

Dunn, W. (1999). The sensory profile: Examiner’s manual. San Antonio, Texas: Psychological Corporation.

Fine, A. H. (2006). Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice (2nd ed.). New York: Academic Press.

Benda, William,. McGibbon, Nancy H., and Grant, Kathryn L. “Improvements in Muscle Symmetry in Children with Cerebral Palsy After Equine-Assisted Therapy (Hippotherapy).” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. December 2003, 9(6): 817-825.Volume: 9 Issue 6: July 5, 2004

Esteban Santiago is a graduate student at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. He can be reached via e-mail