Therapeutic Horseback Riding

By Donna M Warfield, Co-Executive Director Circle of Hope Therapeutic Riding

Equine assisted therapeutic riding provides therapy to children and adults with disabilities including, but not limited to attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome, and head trauma. Therapeutic riding is a special training program in which individuals with disabilities learn horse-riding skills. During the last decade, medical doctors, physical therapists, educators, psychotherapists. and other professionals have come to recognize the numerous physical, psychological, and social benefits of riding therapy.

Physical benefits can include improved balance, strength, coordination, and endurance. Especially for the physically handicapped, the warmth and movement of the horse stimulates unused muscles. Individuals with emotional and developmental disabilities benefit in language development (there are stories of children who spoke their first words ever on horseback) and concentration. In many children and adults, riding therapy can boost confidence and self-esteem and foster greater independence.

Because learning riding skills provides multi-task learning, there can be "carryover" into other areas such as daily living skills. One little boy, while participating in therapeutic riding for eight weeks, concurrently made improvements in other areas. For example, his fine motor skills improved; for the first time he was able to zip his coat. Few other activities can give the person with a disability such a feeling of complete freedom, body awareness in space, and independence of others.

Riding therapy promotes neurological development and sensory processing because it stimulates many sensory modalities including the proprioceptive, tactile, auditory, visual, and the vestibular. It improves sitting and standing balance, hand grasp and reach, coordination, social skills, and motor planning skills. It simulates righting and equilibrium reactions normal postural adjustment and position. Therapeutic riding meets most criteria for aerobic exercise and low level cardiovascular conditioning.

NARHA - The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, Inc. is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote and support therapeutic horseback riding programs throughout the United States and Canada.

Since 1969 NARHA has helped therapeutic riding programs flourish throughout this country. There are more than 500 NARHA member centers ranging from small, one-person programs to large operations with several instructors and therapists. Other activities offered besides therapeutic riding are driving, vaulting, trail riding, and competition. NARHA support includes providing the membership with standards, accreditation, certification, education resources and published materials they need to fully serve their community. Members represent a cross- section of individuals from various fields, disciplines and professions associated with therapeutic riding.

On July 15-19, 1997, NARHA sponsored the Ninth International Therapeutic Riding Congress in Denver, Colorado. This is an exciting opportunity for riders, volunteers, and professionals in the field of therapeutic riding to share experiences from around the world. There will be presenters from Canada, Italy, Australia, Germany, France, and the United States, just to name a few. Here’s a sampling of the seminars to be presented:

NARHA holds an annual conference every November. This conference is an opportunity for individuals in the filed to come together and exchange ideas and experiences. To learn more about therapeutic riding, or for a list of centers in your area, contact NARHA at 1-800-369-RIDE (7433) or go to www.narha.org.

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 2, Number 4 - Spring, 1997]

All material in this web site is given for information purposes only and is not to be substituted for advice from your health care provider.


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