Horses and Healing
Since antiquity, the horse and human bond has been known for its healing power. Use of the horse in a therapeutic role, from helping wounded veterans regain functionality, to augmenting the development of struggling children, has grown dramatically since the mid-twentieth century. Two principal programs have developed, which may appear similar from a distance, but have different focus.
Hippotherapy, i.e., treatment with help of the horse (from the Greek “hippo” meaning horse) is conducted by specially trained physical, occupational, and speech therapists who use the rhythmic, multi-dimensional motion of the horse as a treatment tool. Aided by a horse handler, the therapist directs the movement of the horse to influence the “rider”, who may be positioned in various ways on the horse. The front-to-back, side-to-side movement of the horse closely simulates the movement that a person’s body experiences in walking, and can have a powerful effect on individuals who have a movement dysfunction.
Therapeutic riding is taught by registered instructors who have been certified by PATH, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. In this program, riders learn to control the horse and develop as much independence as they are able. In contrast to “hippo”, here the rider is learning horsemanship – and still benefiting from the movement and energy of the horse. Whatever support the riders need, whether someone leading the horse or walking alongside to stabilize their positions in the saddle, is provided by specially trained volunteers.
The program for each rider is customized to the specific objectives tailored to his/her ability. Second only to emphasis on safety is a large dose of fun – stretching, reaching, throwing, laughing all help the rider to relax, engage, and improve. Sessions may include games – throwing bean bags, shooting baskets, “red light green light,” Simon Says – to develop coordination, focus attention, and interject fun, as appropriate for the individual’s needs, maturity, and functionality.
In the hippotherapy and therapeutic riding programs, we see individuals with a wide range of disabilities including
- Physical disabilities
- Cognitive disabilities
- Behavioral challenges
- Emotional challenges
- Attention disorders
- Autism Spectrum disorders.
Benefits that riders experience may include:
- Increased muscle strength and tone
- Increased balance and mobility
- Increased range of motion
- Improved confidence and self-esteem
- Greater ability to focus and stay on task
- Behavioral improvements
- Increased problem solving ability
Although physical and developmental benefits are numerous, there are often intangible, even sweeter benefits as well. Picture a wheelchair-bound child, accustomed to looking up at the world, being able to see the world from atop a horse, even learning how to direct this large animal; it is hugely empowering, and leaves the rider feeling “on top of the world.”