Throughout the course of history, humans and horses have had a close relationship. Before trains and cars became the popular and convenient means of travel, horseback riding was the common method of getting from one place to another. In today's society, horses are typically found on ranches or farms where they are either ridden for work or for leisure; however, they also serve another important purpose. For people with disabilities, interaction with horses can be beneficial for therapeutic reasons. There are a number of therapies or treatments that use horses, including therapeutic horseback riding and hippotherapy. People who are interested in equine therapy should understand that the two are very different in their therapeutic approach. Therapeutic horseback riding involves actually learning to ride a horse. Lessons are adapted for the individual's specific disability and needs. Unlike therapeutic horseback riding, hippotherapy does not involve horseback riding lessons. With this type of therapy the horse is used as a tool for treatment. It involves a licensed therapist, a horse handler and a therapy horse. Despite their differences, however, they both offer numerous benefits for the disabled.
Improvements in Fine Motor Skills
With horse riding and other equine interactions, small muscle movements are necessary. This type of movement improves the student or client's fine motor skills and manual dexterity. These are often hand movements and depending on the task, can be accomplished while the student is off the horse or while riding. Examples of ways that a student can improve his or her fine motor skills include selecting reins and holding them while riding.
Improved Gross Motor Skills
While riding a horse, the student will need to use large muscle groups. The ability to use the muscles of these groups refers to the rider's gross motor skills. The act of riding itself helps to improve these skills as the rider rises and sits to the horse's rhythm. Improved gross motor skills may also be credited to the act of mounting and dismounting the horse. Having the rider lift his or her body from the saddle by putting weight on the stirrups also contributes positively to one's gross motor skills.
Improved Motor Coordination and Balance
Riding a horse requires both coordination and balance. Because of this, therapeutic horseback riding typically improves these areas in students who may otherwise have difficulties due to their disabilities. While mounting or dismounting the horse, students must be coordinated in their movements. Staying on a moving horse is crucial for safety. As the rider learns to stay on the horse and hold on with a proper posture, his or her muscles learn to work together to help maintain balance. Starting and stopping the horse and changing directions are all challenges in terms of not falling off-balance, and with time improvement is typically noted.
As the movement of a horse helps the student to improve his or her balance, it also helps build core strength. The movement of a horse is unique in that it walks in a pattern that includes both swaying and forward motion. The student must adjust to these movements using the muscles in his or her upper body and legs. Keeping good posture and remaining upright while the horse is in motion also strengthens and stretches the muscles of the rider's back and stomach.
Develops or Improves Social Skills
Therapeutic horseback riding and hippotherapy both improve upon the social skills of people with disabilities who may have difficulty interacting with others. This improvement starts with the bond that is naturally built between the individual and the horse during the lessons that are given. Because the volunteers and the instructors are a part of the experience it is natural for a relationship to develop through conversation. For some people, they may feel aggression or anger over their disability, which hinders their ability to achieve positive social interaction under normal circumstances. The challenges associated with therapy may allow them to channel their aggression or frustration in a positive way and leave them open to interaction with the therapist or instructor, the volunteers, or people in the group.
Positive Sensory Stimulation
Horses stimulate the senses in a number of ways that are beneficial for people with certain disorders such as those which fall within the autism spectrum. The rider's vision, hearing, sense of touch, and smell are all stimulated by the sounds, smells, and the feel of the horse itself. When the horse is in motion, the stimulation is to the student's tactile senses. This creates both sensory enjoyment and/or appreciation for the act of riding.