Equine-Assisted Therapy – How Horses Help Us Heal
February is Therapeutic Recreation Month here in Canada. By definition, therapeutic recreation is the use of recreation as a means of making changes in a person’s emotional, spiritual, mental, social, and physical well-being in the environment that they reside. It engages individuals based on their abilities in planned recreation and related experiences, promotes and educates them in health and wellness, and reduces or eliminates activity limitations to achieve optimal health and well-being. This can be done through any number of activities and varies depending on an individual’s strengths, weaknesses, and personal interests.
Being the equestrienne that I am, I have a soft spot for therapeutic riding programs. As Sir Winston Churchill so eloquently put it: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”. And he could not have been more right. The evidence supporting equine-assisted therapy (also known as hippotherapy) is strong and growing all the time. From strengthening muscle symmetry in children with cerebral palsy to improving concentration and awareness in children on the spectrum to promoting better cognitive function and quality of life for those with mental health challenges.
Because the swinging walk of a horse closely mimics the motion of the human walk, therapeutic riding helps stimulate the muscles responsible for balance and movement and familiarize them with correct walking patterns of motion. By sitting on a horse at the walk, the muscles are able to practice the correct movements which builds muscle memory, thereby improving the rider’s mobility when off the horse. The rhythmic movement and warmth from the horse also help to soothe and relax tight or painful muscles, tendons, and joints.
In fact, this review found that the addition of hippotherapy to standard treatments for multiple sclerosis significantly improved balance, fatigue, muscle spasticity, and quality of life for MS patients. This study found that children with cerebral palsy demonstrated improved posture and balance in a sitting position after 12 weeks of hippotherapy. Hippotherapy has also been shown to improve balance, strength, gross motor skills, gait speed, and functional mobility in the case of traumatic brain injury.
Participants in therapeutic riding programs have reported benefits such as improved weight bearing capabilities, improved circulation and respiration, improved fine and gross motor skills, improved reflexes, improved spacial awareness and range of motion, and improved physical fitness, especially in underused or underdeveloped muscles.
It is difficult for researchers to adequately quantify the psychological benefits or therapeutic riding the way the physical benefits have been. As a result, we have been left to rely on educated theories and anecdotal evidence, but there are an increasing number of studies and reviews of the evidence to support the psychological benefits of equine-assisted therapy.
One recent review found good evidence for animal-assisted therapies, noting a particular benefit of equine-assisted therapy for children on the spectrum. With respect to ASD, parents of children engaged in equine-assisted interventions reported that their children showed improved self-regulatory abilities and enhanced emotional well-being, in addition to the perceived social benefits to the child. In children struggling with ADD/ADHD, equine-assisted activities were found to lead to clear symptom improvement in participants. Riding has even been found to promote psychological stability and improve brain wave function in the elderly. Everyone really can benefit from therapeutic riding!
As riding helps stimulate and strengthen the body, it also helps the brain function better, too. Areas of the brain responsible for controlling movement and balance are practicing the skills needed to function better, which helps promote healthier functioning of other areas of the brain as well. Equine-assisted therapy can also help rehabilitate those suffering from psychological trauma. Programs like Wounded Warriors have recently developed equine-assisted therapy programs specifically geared towards veterans and their families struggling with PTSD with good success.
Therapeutic riding participants report benefits including improved emotional control, listening skills, decision making, multi-tasking, attention span, self-confidence, self-discipline, and risk-taking.
Riding is fun! Riders make new friends (both horse and human) and are naturally encouraged to participate in positive social interactions with the horse, instructors, and other riders. Many riders also report an increase in confidence from mastering the various skills involved in caring for and riding the horse.
Children exposed to parental substance abuse showed a decrease in difficult behaviour, hyperactivity, and emotional problems following a 12 week course of equine-assisted therapy. And to take that one step further, the utilization of equine-assisted activities in substance use disorder treatment has shown improved treatment retention and provides participants with an opportunity to construct a positive self, which may lead to improved treatment outcomes.
Participants in therapeutic riding report numerous emotional benefits, including increased trust and patience, improved empathy and respect for others, increased sense of empowerment and independence, and a deeper sense of responsibility and personal bonds with the horse, instructors, and peers.
This really only scratches the surface of the benefits of equine-assisted therapy. Unfortunately, the availability of this therapy is often limited due to lack of funding or lack of trained instructors/facilitators and volunteers. I have yet to find a therapeutic riding organization that has not been in need of either donations or volunteers. It is an amazing and rewarding experience to help with programs like this – to see the joy and pride on the faces of the riders as they experience freedom from wheelchairs and crutches and learn new strengths and skills. If you are looking for a place to give back at some point, I hope this has encouraged you to look into your local therapeutic riding center!