Spring is a wonderful time to saddle up – especially for people with disabilities.
Indeed, a great many studies have shown that therapeutic horseback riding, which includes both equine-assisted therapy and hippotherapy, benefits individuals with a range of physical, developmental and intellectual disabilities in a variety of ways.
The term “equine-assisted therapy” describes a range of programs that involve horses and horse care for clients with different needs. Hippotherapy, on the other hand, is a distinct type of therapy that is prescribed by a physician and conducted by an occupational, physical or speech-language therapist who has been trained and certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH). Many studies have found that equine-assisted therapy and hippotherapy can benefit individuals both physically and emotionally. For example, therapeutic riding:
1. Improves motor skills in children with cerebral palsy, autism (ASD) and ADHD
A study published in the journal Neurologia found that “therapeutic horseback riding improved motor skills and reduced spasticity in children with CP.” Likewise, a 2016 study in the Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics journal found that “hippotherapy provided by a trained therapist who applies an intense and graded session for 10 weeks can improve body functions and performance of gross motor and fine motor activities in children with cerebral palsy.”
Another study showed that children with ASD and ADHD who took part in equine-assisted therapy combined with brain exercises showed improvement in motor skills such as “manual dexterity, upper-limb coordination and strength tests.” Additionally, “their caregivers … reported improvements in coping skills, balance, posture [and] social and academic performance,” according to researchers.
2. Improves communication skills and the ability to form relationships in children with autism spectrum disorder
Some children on the spectrum have difficulty forming bonds with others. According to Spark For Autism, therapeutic riding improves their ability to do so because “the bond that riders often form with their horses can be a bridge to better social or communication skills for people on the autism spectrum.”
For example, a 2021 study in which 42 children with ASD participated in a 16-week therapeutic horseback riding program while another 42 took part in other activities, found that the group that received hippotherapy “demonstrated a significant improvement in social interaction and communication skills compared to the participants in the control group.”
3. Therapeutic riding increases sensory awareness
When an individual rides or interacts with a horse, its movements provide sensory input to the vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile and visual senses. A 2021 study in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy found that an 8-week trial of equine-assisted OT improved sensory integration in children with autism.
4. Therapeutic riding helps build the skills needed for walking
As Janice Anderson, a clinical leader at Manes & Motions, a therapeutic riding school in Middletown, Connecticut, told the Hartford Courant, “as a person’s pelvis sways on horseback, it is actually simulating the walking motion and serving as physical therapy.” Anderson said she “has seen wounded veterans and others go from walkers to crutches as they gain strength and mobility, and their gait improves.”
5. Therapeutic riding builds confidence and patience
After participating in an 8-week therapeutic horseback riding program, combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder reported “greater confidence, gratitude and hope as well as increased patience” according to Beth A, Lanning, Ph.D. associate chair and associate professor of public health at Baylor University.
For more information and to find a PATH Certified therapist near you, visit pathintl.org.