Equine Therapy

Equine therapy (using horses to aid people with physical or psychological disorders) has existed for far more years than some of us would imagine. As far back as the days of the ancient Greeks in 600 BC, riding a horse was considered a good therapy for improving health

 equine therapy       In 1875 the French physician Cassaign affirmed that it was helpful for people who had neurological disorders to improve posture, balance, joint movement and even giving psychological benefits. 

In England wounded soldiers from World War 1 were offered riding therapy in an Oxford Hospital and finally in 1969 'The British Riding for the Disabled Association' (RDA) was founded with support from the Royal Family. 

So now we know when it began, what does it entail and how does it work? 

The basic requirements of equine therapy are to have a gentle horse, a physiotherapist, psychologist or speech therapist, depending on the disability or disorder, and a riding assistant. But above all, any patient considering equine therapy must first have permission from their doctor, because while equine therapy is proven to help many disabilities and disorders there are a few cases where it can actually be detrimental and so one's doctor always has to have the last word. 

Equine therapy is used mainly to help the following disorders: 

  • spina bifida                                            

  • multiple sclerosis

  • cerebral damageexercises on the horse

  • autism

  • down's syndrome

  • ADS (Attention Deficit Syndrome)

  • addiction problems (drugs, alcohol etc)

  • behavioral problems 

The horse can neither be too tall or too short remembering that the physiotherapist has to be able to have easy access to the patient when he is mounted. The back of the horse has to be well muscled up so as to offer a comfortable seat for the patient, especially when instead of a saddle just a small numnah (blanket) with a girth is used. This is so that the patient can not only feel the movements of the horse more, which will help to relax and at the same time stimulate muscles, but also so as to feel the heat and warmth of the horse's body. 

Riding a horse serves to: 

  • relax muscles with the warmth from the horse's bodylove of a horse

  • move. tone and stimulate muscles

  • acquire self confidence

  • reduce fears and phobias

  • benefit from loving an animal

  • give 'memory to the brain' (this will be discussed in more depth below)

  • improve digestive system

  • improve respiratory system

  • improve circulation 

The horse of course has to be virtually bomb proof and be used to all sorts of noises, strange objects and strange movements and have a comfortable and steady pace at the walk which is the gait which is normally used.  

horses don't see disabilities

The child is mounted with a riding assistant leading the horse so as to allow the physiotherapist to attend to the child freely without having to control or worry about the horse. The child is made to do many exercises on the horse such as lying down on the back of the horse, leaning forward over the neck, riding backwards i.e. facing the tail of the horse or even kneeling on the blanket. All of these exercises not only aid the balance and posture of the child but also give it confidence and improve muscle tone. Games are also introduced such as catching balls or hoops while sitting in the saddle which also help in keeping the child interested. 

In cases of severe brain damage where the child/patient cannot even hold himself upright, he will be mounted in front of the physiotherapist who will support him against his chest. Even this is beneficial as the hips of the patient will automatically move in unison with the movement of the horse's stride, and this movement of hips is the movement that one makes when walking. And here is where we can talk about 'memory to the brain': 

When a child has never walked in its life through what ever medical reason, the brain has no recollection of what it is like to walk, it has nothing stored there as the child has never taken a step nor even made a similar movement. On moving the hips while astride a horse the child's brain will begin to acknowledge this movement and each time the memory of this will become stronger and clearer. When parents try and teach toddlers to walk, the first thing they do is hold them under their arms and make their body and hips swing from side to side (liken to the movement in riding a horse) so that eventually the child get's to do it on his own as a message has been placed in his brain of how to do it and hence that message remains as a memory. horse lending its legs

I am a certified riding assistant for an equine therapy centre and I can confirm that I have witnessed many improvements in many types of disorders but even in the cases where no progress has occurred at least the child gets to experience the thrill of being out in the fresh air, feel the contact with a warm and noble animal and gain self confidence. Horses do not discriminate against anyone and horses do not see the disabilities, they are just there to help and to lend their legs and their bodies to those who do not have complete function of their own.