Horseback Riding For The Handicapped
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Horseback Riding for the Handicapped

“The horse and human bond has been known since antiquity for its healing qualities. With a therapy horse’s non-judgmental approach quiet trust, and sense of play, students are highly motivated to learn and grow into their full potential.”

For three years, I volunteered at Equest, a therapeutic riding center for children with mental and physical disabilities. For some children, hippotherapy is the only time when they can relax and have fun.

Hippotherapy has changed the lives of thousands of children, and it will continue to do so.

Many people can confuse therapeutic riding and hippotherapy, but there is a definite difference between the two. Therapeutic riding is a term that describes the recreational side of riding; hippotherapy is a medical treatment where specific therapy goals are addressed.

So, what exactly is hippotherapy? Hippotherapy is a term used to describe the movement of a horse as part of a treatment strategy when used by physical, occupational, and speech therapists.

The word hippotherapy comes from the Greek word “hippos” meaning “horse.”

Hippotherapy requires a prescription from a physician. Hippotherapy is a physical therapy treatment, even though children typically view it as a fun activity, not therapy.

Since a horse’s pelvis moves in a similar manner to that of a human’s, a disabled child sitting atop a walking horse automatically learns the motion of walking on the ground without assistance.

The horse’s movements constantly force the rider off balance, causing the student to unconsciously contract and relax the same muscles used to balance a person when they are walking.

This act alone strengthens and exercised much deeper muscles that conventional physical therapies cannot. Additionally, the student bonds with the horse and learns confidence and trust.

You can think of hippotherapy as physical therapy turned into a game that will hold the student’s interest.

“Hippotherapy has been used for decades in the treatment of children with cerebral palsy, as well as multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, and sensory impairment.”

There are many mental and physical disabilities that can be treated with hippotherapy. Cerebral palsy is a disability that affects one to three children per live births.

A child born with cerebral palsy cannot perform many common daily activities such as sitting and standing without assistance.

Cerebral palsy can develop in utero, at the time of birth, or within the first months of life; neurological lesions in the brain result in abnormal muscle tones, reflexes, and reactions that are common symptoms of persons affected by cerebral palsy.

People with cerebral palsy cannot typically function in normal social settings; many can also have dysfunctional vision, perception, and cognition, making it difficult—if not impossible—to survive alone.

Down syndrome is another disability that can utilize hippotherapy as a form of treatment. Down syndrome “is a condition which extra genetic material causes delays in the way a child develops, and often leads to mental retardation.

It affects one in every eight hundred babies born.” Down syndrome can be detected before a child is born; but, unfortunately, it cannot be prevented.

Another common disability that can be addressed with hippotherapy is muscular sclerosis; a disease where communication between the brain and the nervous system is disrupted.

Many researchers believe that multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body’s immune system essentially attacks the body’s tissues.

Hippotherapy provides so many advantages, that it can be hard to organize them on paper. I can begin by exploring the physical benefits and improvements that disabled children encounter via hippotherapy.

A common way for children to learn is through games, so it is only natural that hippotherapy uses games to interact with the students.

‘Around-the-world’ is a term that most children would associate with basketball, but for children in hippotherapy, it is a game to see how far you can get in the process of rotating your body on a horse without help.

A student, Mary, who after completing a 10-week program, was able to independently rotate her sitting position from the front to the right side to facing the back to the left side and return to the front.

Games on horseback can also educate the students by teaching letters, numbers, shapes, and colors. These objects can be placed around the arena so that the rider can find whichever one the instructor tells them to.

The simple act of sitting on a moving horse forces the body to use muscles pertaining to balancing the human body.

“As the horse moves, the rider is constantly thrown off-balance, requiring that the rider’s muscles contract and relax in an attempt to re-balance. This exercise reaches deep muscles not accessible in conventional physical therapy.”

Since a horse’s pelvis moves very similarly to a human’s, sitting on a walking horse forces the rider’s body to mimic walking on their own, which can eventually lead to independent walking on the ground. Unaware by the rider, the student’s muscles are learning the rhythm and pattern of walking unassisted.

“The horse rhythmically and naturally moves the body [of the rider] in a manner similar to the human gait, improving posture, balance, and muscle control. In addition, horseback riding produces a rare opportunity for disabled individuals to enjoy the outdoors free of wheelchairs and crutches.”

Hippotherapy is also a way to make physical therapy fun and enjoyable. Look at it this way: would you rather struggle to teach your muscles the motion of walking using handrails in a depressing hospital, or astride a beautiful horse in a huge, open pasture?

Confidence. Some have it, some wish they had it, but everyone lacks it at some time or another. For children with disabilities, confidence can be a hard quality to obtain, but learning how to control a 1,000 pound animal can work magic on a person’s self-confidence.

“Confidence is gained by mastering a skill normally performed by able-bodied people. The ability to control an animal much larger and stronger than oneself is a great confidence builder…by being able to master a skill considered difficult by the able-bodied population, the rider experiences him/herself as normal.”

Children involved in hippotherapy also learn confidence from being the leader of a team; the rider is in control of the horse. Through this team, riders learn to be independent and trusting, not only with their horse, but with other people.

This unique partnership has also proved beneficial in calming children’s outbursts, and also to teach the kids how to act and behave correctly. At Equest, I used to help this little boy, Jason. He would sometimes burst into loud fits—everything from crying to laughing to screaming.

For a while, the only thing that would calm him down was to tell him that he was hurting his poor horse’s ears, and eventually he stopped the outbursts altogether.

Like Jason, almost all riders quickly realize that if they want to stay in control of their horse, they have to stay in control of themselves, because an out-of-control rider means an out-of-control horse, which in turn frightens the rider.

Riders learn to control these emotions and appropriately express them.

Learning to control their emotions is the first step to controlling their horse, and the beginning of learning patience.

"Horses have minds of their own!"

"You have to MAKE them do what you want by telling them the right way!"

I had to scream this all the time while I was teaching lessons (to able-bodied students).

This aspect is true no matter the rider, whether they are disabled or not—riders must be firm with their mounts, but they must also learn to be patient when their horse is not cooperating. Riders also gain patience from performing basic riding skills continually.

Training and bonding with an animal is very hard and takes a lot of time, practice, and patience. Not to mention, it’s just plain hard sometimes!

Aside from psychological and physical benefits, disabled students in hippotherapy can progress socially as well. Students learn to consider more about the outside world and even their own lives as they interact with the horses and the normal day to day hustle and bustle of barn life.

“For those confined by a disability, the world tends to shrink in size. Riding increases interest in what is happening around the rider, as the rider explores the world from the back of a horse. Even exercising becomes interesting when done on horseback.”

Consider this: when you find out something interesting, say, a juicy piece of gossip, you would want to immediately call your friends and spill the beans, right?

Or if you just landed your dream job, would you want to keep that from your friends and family?

Of course not, you’re immediately hitting up Facebook, twitter, etc. to let anyone, who will pay attention long enough, know all about it.

Well, that’s exactly how these riders feel about hippotherapy; they are stimulated by the experience of riding, and that alone encourages interaction with their family and friends.

The rider still wants to verbally communicate their excitement with others, sometimes anyone who will sit still long enough for them to get their story out.

Riding nurtures a positive self-image and pushes them in a non-competitive setting to learn and overcome new obstacles. All of this helps the rider gain higher self-esteem, an attribute that they cannot help but to bring into their own worlds.

“Documentation of the benefits of horses to health and well-being has existed since the fifth century B.C., when Greek and Roman soldiers injured in battle were placed back on their mounts to facilitate recovery."

Although hippotherapy is an unusual concept, no one can deny its usefulness and success with disabled children. Most people do not know that hippotherapy has, in context, been used for centuries, and horses have been used for specific therapy as far back as the 1600s in Germany.

The first therapeutic riding center in the US was established in 1969 in Michigan, and hippotherapy is used in more than 30 countries worldwide.

While all of the facts and statistics give a pretty good perspective on hippotherapy, for one to really gain a real understanding of how much it can change the lives of disabled children, you’d have to hear it straight from the students and their parents themselves:

“We attribute our daughter’s ability to walk to horseback riding, as well as her improved ability to focus in school. She is empowered to have a skill (riding horses) that not all of her peers possess.”

-Parents of one Equest student.

“Getting back on a horse was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do but I knew I had to do it in order to keep the accident from being such a focal point in my life…being able to ride a horse, independently, was the crossroad of my life.

Here I was, with no feeling in my legs or seat, balancing on a horse, trotting over small jumps, and feeling great!”

-Sandy Dota

“His self-esteem has definitely improved, his touch has improved as he likes to hug now and likes washing his hair.”

-Equest staff commenting on a student’s progress


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