History of Therapeutic Riding
References to the physical and emotional benefits of horseback riding date back to writings in the 1600s. However, when Liz Hartel of Denmark won the silver medal for dressage at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games—despite having paralysis from polio—medical and equine professionals took active notice. It wasn’t long before therapeutic riding was being used for rehabilitation in England and then in North America. The first centers for therapeutic riding in North America began operation in the 1960s. Ride To Walk began in 1985 with one pony named Freckles and 4 riders. Today, our numbers have increased dramatically and we have our own riding facility with stables and a covered arena.
Who Can Ride?
Children of all ages, with a wide range of physical, cognitive and/or emotional disabilities benefit from therapeutic horseback riding and other equine activities. The types of disabilities and conditions served include:
- Brain Injuries
- Cardiovascular Accident/Stroke
- Cerebral Palsy
- Down Syndrome
- Emotional Disabilities
- Learning Disabilities
- Muscular Dystrophy
- Post Polio Speech Impairments
- Spina Bifida
- Spinal Cord Injuries
Before participating in therapeutic horseback riding activities, individuals need to consult with their physicians. Each prospective rider is required to present a complete medical history and physician’s statement signed by their physician prior to a therapeutic riding session.
Benefits of Therapeutic Riding
The benefits of horseback riding are as numerous as the types of disabilities and conditions served. Research shows that students who participate in therapeutic riding can experience physical, emotional and mental rewards. Because horseback riding gently and rhythmically moves the rider’s body in a manner similar to a human gait, riders with physical disabilities often show improvement in flexibility, balance and muscle strength.
For individuals with mental or emotional disabilities, the unique relationship formed with the horse can lead to increased confidence, patience and self-esteem. The sense of independence found on horseback benefits all who ride. The therapeutic qualities of horseback riding are recognized by many medical professionals, including the American Physical Therapy Association and the American Occupational Therapy Association.
What Others Say about Therapeutic Horseback Riding—The Medical Benefits
Dr. Louis Wagner, Retired
Chest and Vascular Surgeon, Franklin, PA:
“A horse’s walking action mimics your body action. So, when you put somebody on a horse, in order to keep their balance, they have to move their trunk, arms, shoulders, head and the rest of their body. Only a live creature can make happen what is so beneficial. NautilusÆ and other exercise machines work only one group of muscles at a time. They don’t require you to respond to them with natural body movements. A horse makes your whole body respond in a smoothly rhythmic, progressive way.”
Dr. Walter Bobechko, Director of Humana Advanced Surgical Institute
Orthopedic Center of Dallas, TX:
Therapeutic riding is extremely effective with:
- adult stroke patients
- adults or children with brain injuries
- children with cerebral palsy
In addition to the physical benefits, therapeutic riding offers psychological benefits because riders feel a sense of achievement and control. Therapeutic riding requires balance and muscular control that often enhances or expedites recovery. The slow, continuous, rhythmic motion of the gait of the horse is therapeutic and helps develop the muscles around the spine.”
Dr. Peter Moskovitz, Orthopedic Surgeon
George Washington University Hospital, Washington, D.C.:
“Horseback riding is an effective means of therapeutic treatment, especially among patients with neuromuscular-related problems or disabilities.
“Psychological functions such as improved self-image, perceptions of mastery and improved confidence appear to result from equestrian therapy.
“Young people with cerebrospastic neuromuscular disorders who participate in therapeutic riding show better range of hip and knee motion, improved sitting balance and ambulatory capacities. They have a more positive and cooperative attitude toward their regular physical therapy.”
Robert T. Kramer, Chief, Department of Pediatrics
Baylor University Medical Center, Children’s Medical Center
Presbyterian Medical Center, Dallas, TX:
“Therapeutic riding transcends traditional therapeutic methods and provides people with the joy of participating in a program that offers social, athletic and personal rewards, while providing benefits as well.”
Early and consistent therapeutic intervention are the keys to development of enough controlled physical movement and communications to avoid the much costlier alternative of institutionalization as children grow to adulthood. There are very limited therapeutic services available to the many children in the greater Sacramento area who are diagnosed with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism and retardation. This group does not include the minimally disabled population who, with early and intensive intervention, can live independent lives without the limitations of a disability. This minimally disabled population often does not qualify for even the limited services provided by state and county centers.
While there are a variety of programs that put disabled children on horseback for recreational purposes. Ride To Walk is currently the only program in this area that focuses on the therapeutic aspects of this activity. Children participate in weekly horseback riding therapy sessions conducted by specially trained physical and/or occupational therapists. Ride To Walk’s reputation as a successful intervention program for this population, from the severely affected to the mildly disabled, is recognized by both Alta California Regional Center and the North American Handicapped Riding Association (NAHRA).
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