Historically, the therapeutic benefits of the horse were recognized as early as 460 BC. References to the physical and emotional benefits of horseback riding date back to writings in the 1600s. However, when Liz Hartel of Denmark, who suffered some paralysis from polio, won the silver medal for dressage at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, the medical and equine profession took active notice. Within only a few years, therapeutic riding was used for rehabilitation, first in Germany and England and then in North America.
The first centers in North America for therapeutic riding began operation in the 1960s. In 1969, the professional organization, North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) was formed. NARHA, now known as Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), began with 4 member centers and 60 individual members. Currently, the number of PATH affiliated centers and members have increased to more than 800 member centers around the globe and 6,500 individual members. There are more than 42,000 riders who have taken part in PATH programs with the help of 3,500 instructors, 30,000 volunteers, and 6,300 therapy horses.
Why The Horse?
The horse’s natural gaits provide a variety of rhythmic and repetitive movement similar to human movement patterns. The horse’s gait enhances sensory input as the client experiences patterns similar to a pelvis while walking.
Walk– A four-beat gait that averages 4 mph. When walking, a horse’s legs follow this sequence: left hind leg, left front leg, right hind leg, right front leg, in a regular 1-2-3-4 beat. The horse will move its head and neck in a slight up and down motion to help maintain balance.
Trot – A two-beat gait that has a wide variation in possible speeds, but averages 8 mph. the horse moves its legs in unison in diagonal pairs. From the standpoint of the horse, this is a very stable gait, and the horse need not make balancing motions with its head and neck.
Canter – A controlled three-beat gait that averages 16-27 mph depending on the length of the horse’s stride. Listening to a canter, one can usually hear the three beats as if played on a drum with a pause immediately followed by the three-beat canter once again.
Gallop – A controlled three-beat Canter that changes to a four-beat gait as the horse reaches 25-30 mph and begins to cover more ground. This is the fastest gait of the horse.
Pace – A lateral two-beat gait where two legs on the same side of the horse move together, unlike the trot, where the two legs diagonally opposite from each other move forward together. A slow pace is relatively comfortable, as the rider is lightly rocked from side to side.
The horse is both a solid and dynamic support base for the client. Strength and agility found in the horse provides the participant an ability to experience both confidence in stability and exhilaration in change. During gait transitions, the client makes postural adjustments to maintain a stable position in a dynamic environment. These subtle adjustments allows for strengthening and increasing the client’s postural control, increasing balance, addressing motor skills, while building strength and endurance.
While combining Hippotherapy with other treatment strategies, therapists vary the degree of movement and gait transitions for each client. In addition to the direct physical benefits, a participant’s response to the horse’s movement facilitates coordination and timing, grading of responses, respiratory control, sensory integration and attention skills. For the client, bonding with his/her horse, in conjunction with cultivating confidence while astride the horse, makes this an extremely enjoyable and therapeutic experience.
What do Therapists and Pathologists focus on?
Physical Therapist: The physical therapist can overlay a variety of motor tasks on a horses movement to address the motor needs of each client and to promote functional outcomes in skill areas related to gross motor ability such as sitting, standing, and walking.
Occupational Therapist: The occupational therapist is able to combine the effects of the equine movement with other standard intervention strategies for working on fine motor control, sensory integration, feeding skills, attentional skills, and functional daily living skills in a progressively challenging manner.
Speech-language Pathologist: The speech-language pathologist is able to use the equine movement to facilitate the physiologic systems that support speech and language. When combined with other standard speech-language intervention and strategies, the speech-language pathologist is able to generate effective remediation of communication disorders and promote functional communication outcomes.
The following represents a partial list of the types of physical and mental handicaps in which equine-assisted therapy has already demonstrated its ability to help clients overcome their disabilities and achieve their highest potential.
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Pervasive Developmental Disorders
Post Polio Syndrome
Spinal Cord Injuries
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