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Equine therapy is considered an integrative therapy because it positively affects cognitive, physical, social, and occupational development. The fact that it is beneficial in so many aspects makes it a very useful tool for improving the quality of life of people with disabilities.
Due to the fact that it is practised in surroundings and conditions specifically for patients with motor or intellectual disabilities, equine therapy requires special preparation on the part of the professionals that practise it, since in addition to having an equestrian basis, they need to possess knowledge in physical therapy, psychology, and teaching.
Therapeutic horseback riding, or equine therapy, has been practised for centuries. In fact, in Classical Greece horseback riding was already recommended as a method to prevent and cure various ailments of the body and mind. As we know it today, equine therapy was introduced in the United States and Canada around the year 1900. In 1969 the first specialized equestrian therapy centre was created and that same year the NARHA was formed as an association for coordinating and officially recognising these therapies.
Physical and psychological benefits of equine therapy
Equine therapy is recommended for people with mental, physical, or sensory disabilities, for people with psychological, language, or learning disorders, and also for people with problems of alienation or social maladjustment. It can be used by adults as well as children, and also in early stimulation.
Why use a horse to perform these therapies? The horse is a sweet, calm, adapted and socially accepted animal with the ability to transport people. Being of such large size makes it so that you must trust it as soon as you have direct contact with it.
On a physiological level the horse radiates heat to our body, which helps to relax the muscles and ligaments, and the animal’s blood flow stimulates the circulatory system.
Additionally, the horse sends out rhythmic impulses to the pelvic belt, the spine, and the legs of the rider, which provides stimulations capable of regulating muscle tone and coordination. The horse’s pace also emits a three-dimensional locomotive pattern and a sensation of movement and forward momentum.
In conclusion, among the benefits of equine therapy, development of muscle tone by working several muscles at once, increase in strength, resistance, balance, and coordination, and the improvement of motor dexterity stand out.
With regard to the psychological benefits of equine therapy, it allows those who practise it to associate the physical sensations with new psychological reactions in relation to themselves and their surroundings.
Almost all of these sensations are related to the psycho-affective area, though also with cognitive stimulation and expressivity. In this sense, equine therapy increases self-esteem and confidence, fosters autonomy and self-control, improves communication, increases concentration and attention, and develops respect for animals.
The different types of equine therapy
Among other diseases and disabilities equine therapy is recommended for people who suffer from multiple sclerosis or any other neurodegenerative disease, spina bifida, traumatological diseases, trauma, autism, or Down syndrome. According to the type of patient and their needs and conditions one kind of equine therapy or another is recommended.
- Instructional horseback riding. This is centred on the adjustment of the rider to riding and on the stimulation of affectivity towards the horse. It is one of the most utilised therapies within equine therapy and for it they use the animal as well as the environment and people who participate (patient, professionals, family members and companions, etc.). When the therapy is focused exclusively on the stimulation of affectivity we are talking about another discipline called social equine therapy.
- Adapted horseback riding. More than a therapy this is an adapted sport intended for those people who practise horseback riding as a conscious choice or sport, but who need adaptation both in getting on the horse and during the ride because of their disability. Adapted horseback riding is considered equine therapy or equestrian therapy because it provides the same benefits as instructional horseback riding and is more stimulating for some patients.
- Hippotherapy. This consists of the performing of physiotherapeutic exercises with a neurophysiological basis with and on the horse. It seeks to maximise some of the medical benefits of equine therapy of a physical nature such as the transfer of body heat from the horse to the person, of rhythmic impulses and of three-dimensional movement.
- Therapeutic vaulting. Similar to hippotherapy, therapeutic vaulting consists of performing gymnastic exercises on the back of a horse. Its practise improves balance and combined limb coordination.
Equine therapy is not a trend nor a passing fad. Its benefits are clearly linked to physiological and psychological factors that count as strong reasons to promote this activity for people with disabilities. Are you ready to try it?