The physical and emotional benefits of horseback riding have been known for several hundred years. Therapeutic riding has been a widely utilized form of therapy for many years, first in Europe, then in the United States. The movement of the horse provides sensory stimulation to the body and brain of the rider that affects a variety of muscle groups. The pelvic movement of the horse reproduces the proper motion of the human pelvis at the walk. For people who have lost that natural movement, or have never had the benefit of this stimulation, horseback riding serves to “inspire” their bodies to achieve this normal motion and improve motor coordination. Further, the warmth of the horse’s body and its rhythmic movements help stiff or spastic muscles to relax, much like rocking soothes a crying baby.
Austin, age 7, is developmentally delayed. When he started as a SIRE rider in the spring of 2008, he had limited attention span, poor physical coordination, and limited verbal communication skills. He now has a much smoother walk, improved fine motor skills, and better overall coordination. Riding enhances his cognitive abilities and motor skills. Austin’s self esteem has improved along with his general motivation. His therapists are impressed with his enthusiasm and increased verbalization when he talks about riding. – From SIRE case files
Benefits of equestrian therapy include improved muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination, motor development, and emotional and psychological well being, as well as sport, recreational, and educational benefits. Specific physical benefits include improved gross and fine motor skills, experiencing three-dimensional movements of the horse that is similar to the movement of a walking human, enhancing balance and posture, and stimulating the cardiovascular system.
Emotional benefits include building self-esteem and confidence while developing feelings of self-reliance, control and accomplishments. Social benefits include developing meaningful relationships with volunteers and a strong bond with the horse, and channeling aggressive or hyperactive behavior into constructive activity. Educational benefits include increasing the ability to listen and follow directions, improving memory utilization, and developing sequencing abilities.
Robert, age 13, is diagnosed with severe autism and mental retardation. When he came to SIRE at the age of three, he would not touch his horse or hold the reins and showed extreme reluctance about changing riding positions. He now holds the reins for the entire lesson, and although he is nonverbal, he has learned to use his legs and the reins to cue the horse to “walk on” and “whoa”. He maintains a good riding position, has a beautiful sitting trot, and has developed a special bond with the horses he rides. — From SIRE case files
There is a benefit that is more difficult to measure but is easy to see. On the back of a horse, a rider who may use crutches or a wheelchair is now taller than everyone else and no longer has to look up at everyone. Full of confidence, there is a sense of control and freedom that comes from making that large animal respond to the rider’s direction. In the clinical setting, the disability can never be forgotten, but on the back of a horse, it quite often becomes “invisible,” allowing the rider to experience a sense of accomplishment and reward.