For most of my life, horses have been involved in some way, whether I was riding, treating, or cleaning up after them. I discovered a whole new way to interact with these gentle giants through my school’s therapeutic riding program. This opportunity allowed me to work as a team with a horse and instructor to meet the specific needs of our riders. While I always found the barn a therapeutic place for myself, I was astonished to see how many benefits clients could get from these lessons. Whether it was a form of physical therapy, mental health assistance, or communication skills, many individuals had stunning growth with horses as their guide. I have kept it as a part of my life in the hopes of raising awareness and access to equine-related assistance and therapies.
General horsemanship and riding lessons
There are two key terms to keep in mind when looking into equine-assisted services. The first refers to general horsemanship and riding lessons adapted to an individual’s needs. It is commonly referred to as therapeutic or adaptive riding. Individuals of varying backgrounds and degrees may teach it, but the governing body and recommended certification is through PATH International. Their Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor program is a voluntary certificate designed to set the standard for mounted and unmounted equine-assisted services. PATH International also offers credentialing for Equine Specialists in Mental Health and Learning, Therapeutic Driving Instructor Certificates, and Interactive Vaulting Instructor Certificates. Kids and adults with varying disabilities, from deafness to cerebral palsy, may have the capacity and desire to ride but need modifications to their lessons. This is where therapeutic riding can fill in.
I worked with a group of high schoolers who came to the barn every week through their Special Education program. The outgoing 10th grader who could quote the entire Batman Dark Knight movie benefited from challenging himself to remember the horses’ different breeds and color patterns. The quiet 9th grader who struggled to communicate benefited from the calming repetitiveness of grooming. It was her way to relax and get more comfortable around the instructors and her classmates. The partnership between the riding program and their school allowed them to interact with horses, be outdoors, and try something new. After learning to groom horses, they often went on “nature walks,” exploring the property, pointing out their favorite horses, and getting excited over the adorable Shetland pony. Throughout the school year, they were able to graduate from grooming and tacking skills to leading their horses on foot and eventually to riding.
Equine-assisted therapy (or hippotherapy)
The second key term, equine-assisted therapy or hippotherapy (hippo meaning horse in Greek), refers to a therapy performed with horses involved in some capacity. Counseling, occupational therapy, psychotherapy, physical therapy, recreational therapy, and speech-language pathology are some professions that utilize equine interaction to accomplish their treatment plans. These sessions are more often individualized. There is one student, an instructor, who may be a certified speech or occupational therapist, and the volunteers to assist. This contrasts with therapeutic riding, where there might be a group of students to one instructor then the volunteers for each horse and rider.
Whether equine-assisted therapy with a formal therapy plan involved or a riding lesson with modifications, it has been shown that equine interactions can lead to many benefits. The motion of a horse walking is very similar to the motion we make when walking. This shift in weight and gait cannot easily be replicated elsewhere. Thus, even the act of sitting on a horse can teach muscle memory to advance walking abilities. It also contributes to core strength, posture improvement, gross motor skills, and muscle tone. A study looking at the effects of hippotherapy on spasticity and mental health of those with spinal cord injuries showed that compared to sitting on a Bobath roll (a hard foam rubber cylinder) or a stool with a rocking seat, hippotherapy was the only one that significantly improved spasticity compared to the control (no intervention). This was based on a blinded assessment by an examiner and a patient self-assessment.
Cognitive & psychological benefits
The patients also completed a self-assessed well-being evaluation, showing positive short-term effects in mental health. Aside from physical benefits, there are many cognitive and psychological benefits. Communication with a twelve-hundred-pound animal takes patience and learning appropriate cues. There is a sense of accomplishment when communication is effective, whether telling the horse to walk on or turning right at the cone. A study in 2009 showed that children with autism exposed to therapeutic riding had greater sensory seeking, sensory sensitivity, social motivation, and less inattention, distractibility, and sedentary behaviors compared to those on the waitlist for the program. I’ve seen this change in one of the students, who was always scared of riding her horse over the wooden bridge in the middle of the arena. At the end of the school year, a show was put on for all the students. Seeing her smile as she came out of the arena, having successfully ridden her horse over the bridge to complete the trail course, was priceless. She gained so much confidence and improved mobility through riding, which I hope will be available to all who could benefit from it.
How to get involved
Many socioeconomic factors lead to inaccessibility to horses, for one, the sheer expense and property required to maintain horses, let alone the link between low income and disability. Many therapeutic riding and equine therapy programs are non-profit and rely heavily on volunteers and donations to keep therapeutic riding and therapy accessible. The beauty of many of these programs is that the opportunity to volunteer is not restricted to those with horse experience only. Being a side-walker is a common volunteer position. This job requires thinking of the rider first, stabilizing their leg, or simply holding their ankle for a little extra support. If you have equine experience, you might take that next step to become a horse leader. Your job focuses on the horse, ensuring they are tacked and ready to go and leading the horse around the arena depending on your rider’s abilities. While our lives as veterinarians are often busy, I encourage you to participate in a form of volunteering.
IndeVets has given me the flexibility in my schedule to continue volunteering for this passion, something I had not been able to do since before vet school. It has taken me back to my roots in the barn and given me an opportunity to share the benefits with others.
If you are interested in volunteering or know someone who would benefit from equine-assisted services check out PATH International’s page to find a program.