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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.”
Several research studies indicate the profound impact of therapeutic riding with a variety of populations. Kaiser, Smith, Heleski, and Spence (2006) found that after completing an 8-week therapeutic riding program, anger in adolescent males significantly decreases and mothers’ perceptions of their sons’ behaviors improves. Mason’s (1988) study revealed enhanced self-concept for people with cerebral palsy after participating in a 3-month therapeutic riding program. Emory’s (1992) research with emotionally and behaviorally challenged teens found statistically significant improvements in self-concept, intellectual and school status, popularity, happiness, and satisfaction. Scheidhacker, Bender, and Vaitel (1991) found that people with chronic schizophrenia showed marked improvement in symptom management while participating in therapeutic riding. Crothers’ (1994) research with learning disabled children found that participating in this type of treatment improves information retrieval and processing.
Therapeutic riding programs are especially effective with attentional disorders because of the areas of the brain stimulated by riding a horse. The motion of the horse stimulates all aspects of the brain, activating both hemispheres simultaneously. It is also believed that the areas of the brain that control attention, impulses, and activity levels are directly stimulated by the movement. The neurotransmitters released when riding create an effect that is similar to the one created by stimulant medication. Energy is redirected to different areas of the brain, making it possible for the person to concentrate; be active without being overly active, hyperactive, or fidgety; and be less impulsive.
Stevens (2007) explains that horses are able to sense certain weaknesses in children with ADHD and respond to them by remaining calm and quiet. As the child pets the horse, the calmness from the horse is transferred to the child. The horse is quiet, and the child becomes quiet or less loud. The child’s listening skills become more attuned, his or her ability to listen to directions and respond appropriately improves, and behavioral difficulties decrease.
In therapeutic programs with learning disabled children, certain activities are chosen to specifically decrease negative behaviors. These activities include grooming a horse, because the child has to groom from left to right and, therefore, learns sequencing. The child must talk softly with the horse during grooming, thus improving communication skills. Self esteem improves when children are placed on the back of a horse, as they are far above the people standing on the ground. Even as the child rides and masters new skills and becomes aware of his or her horseback riding ability, self esteem soars (Stevens, 2007).
Children performing poorly in school often thrive in therapeutic riding treatment. Children participate in games and activities that make them point out shapes, colors, sizes, and textures. On a trail ride, children are often instructed to find the red ball hanging from a yellow rope in a green pine tree. Children are learning, but they see everything as fun and a game. Through the use of signs placed around a paddock (small riding arena), letters can be taught and the reading of the individual words by word recognition can be learned. Games involving signs for “exit,” “danger,” “stop,” and “go” help teach important life skills involving reading (Stevens, 2007).
Children learn to count by counting the horse’s footsteps, objects around the paddock or arena, or even the horse’s ears and legs. The concept of numbers becomes clearer as the rider compares the number of legs on a horse to the number of his or her own legs. Addition and subtraction are taught through games involving throwing large numbered foam dice and adding and subtracting the numbers. Resistance to learning decreases, because the children see these activities as games. Eye-hand coordination, a necessary writing skill, improves as a child tacks (puts on the saddle) or grooms a horse. Visual and spatial perception increase as children ride around the arena, ride closer or farther from a wall, ride around the blue barrel, or ride from the blue barrel to the red barrel and back over to the yellow barrel.
According to Zanin (1997), many parents of riders enrolled in therapeutic riding programs “marvel at their child’s newfound skills.” The riding center may be one of the first places where the child experiences success and acceptance.
The motivating lure of the large, gentle animal, the calm and consistent support of the therapeutic riding team, and the naturally accepting environment of the “stable” provide opportunities for the child to learn and develop. These opportunities may help turn the often disparaging label of the ADD child into a child who is “Absolutely Delightfully Driven.”
Social work students, educators, and practitioners are always seeking effective best practices that can be implemented with their populations. I would encourage those seeking cost-effective and successful programs to consider therapeutic riding. These programs really do work wonders with all types of populations.
Bland, J. (1987). Animal facilitated therapy: The benefits of equestrian therapy for the physically handicapped with cerebral palsy. Dissertation Abstracts International, DAI-A 48/07, 1731.
Crothers, G. (1994). Learning disability: Riding to success. Nursing Standard, 8, 16-18.
Cylke, F. ,& Kurt, E. (1991). Horses: An introduction to horses: racing, ranching, and riding for the blind and physically handicapped. Library of Congress, Washington D.C. National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, 29.
Emory, D. (1992). Effects of therapeutic horsemanship on the self-concepts and behavior of asocial adolescents. Dissertation Abstracts International, DAI-B 53/05, 561.
Kaiser, L., Smith, K., Heleski, C., & Spence, L. (2006). Effects of a therapeutic riding program on at-risk and special needs children. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 228, 46-52.
Killcreas, A. (2008). Riders develop skills with special therapy. Family, Youth, and Consumer News. MSU Agriculture Communications, Mississippi State University Press.
Mason, M. (1988). Effects of therapeutic horseback riding program on self-concept in adults with cerebral palsy. Dissertation Abstracts International, DAI-A 49/09.
Minner, S. (1983). Equine therapy for handicapped students. Pointer, 27, 41-43.
NARHA. (2002). NARHA instructor educational guide. Denver, CO: North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.
Potter, J.T., Evans., J.W., and Nolt, B.H. (1994). Therapeutic horseback riding. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, 204, 131-133.
Scheidhacker, M., Bender, W., and Vaitel, P. (1991). The effectiveness of therapeutic horseback riding in the treatment of chronic schizophrenic patients. Experimental results and clinical experiences. Nervenarzt, 62, 283-287.
Spink, J. (1993). Developmental riding therapy: A team approach to assessment and treatment. Therapy Skill Builders. Tucson, Az.
Stevens, L. (2007). Of children and horses. Holistic: Harmonizing pathways to wholeness, 38-43.
Zanin, C. (1997). Medical consideration for therapeutic riding. Strides, 3 (3). Np.
Marian Swindell, Ph.D., is an associate professor of social work at Mississippi State University-Meridian Campus.