Therapy Through Horses

With the economic downturn, horses are less expensive to purchase for therapy programs.

After a successful mount, the subjects performed a warm-up in order to get the body ready for the riding session. After the warm-up, a session of riding skills and horsemanship activities followed, in order to target participants’ communication skills and fine-motor coordination.

The study found there was a significant increase between the pre- and post-testing for the experimental group. Participants with autism showed an increase in social motivation and sensory sensitivity, as well as decreased inattention and distractibility.

The multisensory nature of horseback riding created a positive and stimulating effect directly associated with the presence and movement of a horse.

For Those With Cerebral Palsy

Another group of people that can be helped by hippotherapy–which is the movement of horses for therapy–consists of individuals who suffer from cerebral palsy. A study was conducted by William Bend, Nancy H. McGibbon and Kathryn L. Grant titled “Improvements in Muscle Symmetry in Children with Cerebral Palsy After Equine-Assisted Therapy (Hippotherapy).”

The researchers evaluated the effect of horse movement on muscle activity in children with spastic cerebral palsy. They used a pre-test/post-test control group with 15 children, whose ages ranged from 4 to 12 years.

The testing took place in Arizona and used randomization for the participants to spend either eight minutes doing hippotherapy or eight minutes astride a stationary barrel. The study used a remote-surface electromyography to measure muscle activity of the trunk and upper legs.

During hippotherapy, there was a significant improvement in the symmetry of muscle activity. The conclusion was that eight minutes of hippotherapy a day results in improved symmetry in muscle activity in individuals with spastic cerebral palsy (December 2003).

The Payoff

The benefits of therapeutic horseback riding for individuals with disabilities (from ages 2 to 70) outweigh the costs. Horses also provide a newfound freedom for those who interact with them. It doesn’t matter if the disability is physical, cognitive, behavioral or emotional, the personal accomplishments of riding provide a boost in self-worth and confidence. This feeling is priceless when it comes to making children with a disability feel better about themselves and their environment.

The downturn in the economy has caused many horse breeders either to sell their livestock or to invest them into developmental programs. This chain of events has created a bright light for hippotherapy programs.

Although the upkeep for horses can be costly, the opportunity to find donors as well as inexpensive horses can assist in offsetting the upfront costs of this program.

A child should not be deprived of happiness and movement because of a disability. With hippotherapy-based programming, that child can have a new sense of freedom that boosts confidence and self-efficacy, and improves self-worth. One cannot put a price on that.

Works Cited

Bass, M., Duchowny, C., and Llabre, M. “The Effect of Therapeutic Horseback Riding on Social Functioning in Children with Autism.” Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders [serial online]. September 2009; 39(9):1261-1267. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, Massachusetts.. Accessed November 29, 2010.

Constantino, J. N. (2002). The Social Responsiveness Scale. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.

Dunn, W. (1999). The sensory profile: Examiner’s manual. San Antonio, Texas: Psychological Corporation.

Fine, A. H. (2006). Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice (2nd ed.). New York: Academic Press.

Benda, William,. McGibbon, Nancy H., and Grant, Kathryn L. “Improvements in Muscle Symmetry in Children with Cerebral Palsy After Equine-Assisted Therapy (Hippotherapy).” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. December 2003, 9(6): 817-825.Volume: 9 Issue 6: July 5, 2004

Esteban Santiago is a graduate student at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. He can be reached via e-mail

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