The feeling of riding a horse, breathing the scent of sawdust and horse manure, grabbing onto the reins as you start to move. Your body sways back, forth, diagonal and side-to-side as you travel around the arena. You trust the horse to walk with you without bucking or moving too quickly. This is the trust the patients of equine therapy place on their horses during their exercises.
“Equine therapy is assisting individuals with mental, physical and emotional disorders with a horse. It can be on the ground or on a horse,” said Karen Grindler, founder and executive director of Cedar Creek (a therapeutic riding center in Columbia, Mo.)
Equine therapy, also known as hippotherapy, has been used since ancient Greece. Riding of horses was used to help with incurable illnesses. The first riding centers in the United States began in the 1960s with the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA). PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) has 850 member centers around the globe. Equine therapy has expanded and become more popular over the past 50 years.
Therapeutic riding is a treatment used in equine therapy. Riders with mental disabilities receive the feeling that they are in control from this kind of treatment.
“Knowing they can get on and ride a one thousand pound animal gives patients self confidence and the sense that they are in control,” Grindler said.
Those with physical disabilities strengthen their vertical and horizontal balance, muscle tone, motor coordination, independent movement of the pelvis and shoulders by riding a horse, according to the Ismael Pinto Equine Therapy Association.
“Riding a horse for an hour is equivalent to using six different machines at a gym for thirty minutes, “ Grindler said.
The horse’s three-beat rhythm walk mimics the walk of a human, which builds the rider’s strength, coordination, flexibility, confidence and muscle memory. Riding can also help patients relax their muscles.
“I have seen patients who cannot control their body motions, and their body is so tight that they cannot move. When they get on the horse and start moving, their muscles will relax and their bodies move with the horse’s motions,” said Kaiti Plunkett, intern at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center.
Patients riding with emotional disabilities learn to trust again through beginning a relationship with the horse. These patients have been abused, abandoned or have experienced bad relationships.
“When you put a patient on a horse, you see them start to trust in it because there is no judgment.” Grindler said. “This ultimately results in restoration in the patient’s trust in people.”
Safety is taken seriously during equine therapy by helpers who lead the horses or walk beside them making sure the rider is stable.
“When I lead the horses I am making sure that the horse is comfortable,” Plunkett said. “I watch their body language and their ears. These are the ways to tell if a horse is tense, mad or feeling overwhelmed.”
Horses are thoroughly trained for these therapeutic riding sessions.
“The horse can sense what the riders need,” Plunkett said. “One of my riders has to have one of the staff sit behind them because she cannot move. The horse, Buddy, knows when she is on him and will walk slower and transition into the trot very smoothly and be very slow. With other riders he will be a littler quicker and a little more finicky.”
Some exercises riders perform working on the ground with horses are grooming and leading the horses around.
“Brushing, bathing and currying can aid in joint range of motion and can also relax and calm the patient,” said Grindler.
The therapeutic riding and groundwork not only give treatment to those with mental, physical or emotional disorders. Some other benefits are improving attention, concentration, developing respect, responsibility, perseverance and even can instill a love toward animals, according to the Ismael Pinto Equine Therapy Association. All of these skills can improve education and the patient’s social life.
The benefits of equine therapy are plentiful, but it may take more than an hour-long session to witness progression in the patient.
“Sometimes it does not happen during the first hour-long session, but I do see them progress every week,” Plunkett said. “I have one rider who would not talk, smile, or even move when I first met her, but now I can occasionally get her to smile and she will make noises at me.”
It takes time for the patient to strengthen muscles, re-learn how to walk, build a relationship with the horse and instructor and to trust the whole situation.
“I love seeing my riders every week and watching them open up to me more and more,” Plunkett said. “It is so rewarding to just watch the patients have such a good time while exercising.”