Horses are large and
physically powerful, but they can be surprisingly gentle, with traits
that make them ideal therapy animals. It's true that there's very
little scientific research attesting to the benefits of equine therapy.
It is, however, impossible to discount the vast amount of anecdotal
evidence from physicians, physical therapists, teachers, parents,
and most importantly, people with disabilities-being around and
working with horses can have some incredible therapeutic results.
How Neuroatypical People can Benefit from Equine Therapy
Equine therapy is the
use of horses as a therapeutic tool for helping children and adults
recover from physical or psychological trauma, and for promoting
emotional growth and healing for people who are affected by a neurological
disorder. This type
of therapy can be used to help people with a wide range of disorders,
including ADD and ADHD; autism, Asperger's syndrome, and related
disorders; anxiety, depression, and mood and behaviour disorders;
and stroke and other forms of brain injury. In particular, equine
therapy is increasingly used as a therapeutic tool for children
and young people with autism
spectrum disorders, ADD, and ADHD. Studies show that equine
therapy can provide many benefits, such as improvements in communication
skills, stress tolerance, impulse control, empathy, assertiveness,
and independence. People who undergo this type of therapy can benefit
from improved self-esteem and greater emotional awareness, better
interpersonal relationships, and an improved sense of social responsibility.
In short, working with horses as part of therapy can help people
affected by neurological disorders to navigate the world more successfully.
What is it about horses
that make them ideal for the role of therapeutic animal? One reason
is that horses have a natural tendency to mirror the behaviour and
attitudes of the people around them, which, like the mirroring technique
often used by therapists, is a powerful way of encouraging people
to become receptive to understanding their own thought patterns.
Linked with this is the fact that horses are herd animals, and can
form strong bonds with humans as well as with other animals. As
animals, they interact with people in a completely non-judgemental
fashion, and the value of this shouldn't be underestimated. People
with behavioural, mood, and neurological problems are often subject
to the stigma society associates with these disorders, and the opportunity
to bond with a horse is therefore an opportunity to form a relationship
in which there is no possibility of this type of stigma occurring.
For children with Asperger's
syndrome, for example, there are both physical and psychological
aspects to equine therapy that are of considerable benefit. The
sensations associated with riding a horse are slow and soothing,
helping to stimulate the child's interest, while enabling them to
focus on the horse and its movement. Children on the autism spectrum
often have difficulty forming new relationships, and the ability
to form a bond with a horse can therefore provide a powerful self
esteem boost that often improves motivation in other areas too.
Working with horses can help children become more verbal and calmer,
too, as they learn that the animals respond to gentle verbal commands.
Riding Therapy for
People with Physical Disabilities
Caring for, riding, and
working with horses can be physically intensive, but overall these
activities are much more pleasant than, say, spending hours engaged
in physical therapy exercises. This type of physical activity can
therefore be a powerful motivator for people who have permanent
physical disabilities, or who are recovering from physical injuries.
benefits of riding are significant, especially for people with
disabilities such as cerebral palsy, which causes low muscle tone
and poor coordination. These physical effects make walking difficult,
but often, a person who is unable to walk is still able to ride,
and over time, the activity helps strengthen and tone muscles, improve
coordination, and improve general fitness.
One particular benefit
of riding therapy is that the walking gait of a horse stimulates
the same muscle groups that the rider would use in walking, and
stimulates them in the same way as if that person actually were
walking. Also of note is the fact that riding stimulates muscle
groups in the upper body, trunk, pelvis, and legs simultaneously,
also helps improve flexibility, balance, and posture. It's not just
the physical benefits that are important, of course. People who
take part in physical therapy with horses are also likely to reap
emotional and mental benefits such as improved confidence, self
esteem, and motivation.