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By: Marian Swindell, Ph.D.
Therapeutic riding is a great way to see remarkable changes in social work clients. Many social workers are now looking to alternative methods to assist our clients. One remarkable program that is yielding phenomenal results is therapeutic horseback riding. Research shows this form of therapy works wonders with almost every social work population: children, teens, juvenile delinquents, physically challenged, developmentally delayed, blind, deaf, and all forms of abuse. The explanation for the success rate is simple. A special bond is formed between a child and a horse. Children who have not progressed in a conventional therapeutic setting often excel with therapeutic riding. Children will tell a horse things they would never tell a therapist. A child will share secrets, thoughts, failures, setbacks, wishes, dreams, and goals with a horse. And the horse will never tell. Children know this and, therefore, open up more with horses than with parents, teachers, friends, pastors, and conventional therapists. Children will attempt different physical challenges because they feel the support of the horse underneath them.
According to the National American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA, 2002) therapeutic riding “uses equine-oriented activities for the purpose of contributing positively to the cognitive, physical, emotional, and social well-being of people with disabilities” (p. 5). Over-activity, distractibility, autism, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral disturbances, and anger issues are all appropriate problems for therapeutic riding.
There are two types of therapeutic horsemanship: therapeutic riding and hippotherapy. The difference between the two types is that hippotherapy requires a medical professional, such as a physical, speech, or occupational therapist. Therapeutic riding requires a certified riding instructor.
In hippotherapy, riders meet with the therapist one-on-one for about 30-45 minutes. In therapeutic riding, riders usually meet in groups with the certified riding instructor for about 45 minutes. In both types, there are several volunteers, also known as “side walkers,” who help the person get on and off the horse and walk beside the horse the entire time to prevent any injury. The side walkers must also complete an intense training course.
In addition to riding the horse, the client also is encouraged to complete certain tasks, also referred to as “games.” A physically challenged rider may be ask to throw a small ball through a hoop, throw a Frisbee into a barrel, or reach and ring a bell. A mentally challenged rider may be asked to count how many times the horse walks around the gate or to count how many barrels there are in the arena. All tasks have a specific therapeutic goal. Many times, the riders are asked to answer questions aloud as well as get the horse to respond to a verbal command—all simultaneously. This provides both a physical challenge and a mental one.
Horses and humans have a lot in common. First and foremost, the gait of a horse is similar to the gait of a human. The horse’s pelvis is identical to a human’s, but offset by 90 degrees. When a client rides a horse, this motion simulates walking, and the rider is able to work on balance, posture, breathing, and coordination. A horse also engages the rider’s vestibular system, “which runs throughout the body and affects functions like alertness, balance, and digestion” (Killcreas, 2008, p.2).
Social work practitioners should seriously consider animal assisted therapy as a viable intervention when working with any type of population at risk. Many educators and health care professionals have already taken the concept of therapeutic riding and put it into practice (Bland, 1987; Crothers, 1994; Cylke & Kurt 1991; Minner, 1983; Potter, Evans, & Nolt, 1994; and Scheidhacker, Bender, & Vaitel, 1991.
Spink (1993) explains that in therapeutic riding, the focus is on learning to control the horse. The rider actively responds to the directions of the riding instructor by cognitively coding or registering the request, then processes the requests and attempt to execute the desired positional and/or motor sequence. The 3-dimensional movements of the horse stimulate the rider’s central nervous system, which then stimulates areas of the brain that control specific motor functions and behaviors. In response, various neurotransmitters, such as natural endorphins, are released and can cause a variety of emotional and behavioral effects (Spink, 1993). These behavioral effects are similar to the effects of the “workout high” or “runner’s high.”