We all know the impact that horseback riding can have on a life, and many riders joke that their horses are their four-legged therapists. But in the world of therapeutic riding, the horses truly DO become therapists, and they accomplish incredible feats.
Therapeutic riding first gained popularity in the 1950’s, with the first riding centers in North America opening in the 1960’s. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, which governed the therapeutic riding organizations, opened in 1969. Since then, therapeutic riding has become a widely recognized powerful therapy.
Today, therapeutic riding schools operate all over the country. Therapeutic riding horses are carefully selected; they must be strong and sound enough to carry a rider who may be unbalanced, but they must also be quiet and gentle, taking distractions in stride and always looking out for the rider on their backs. Depending on the individual rider’s needs, a horse handler may lead the horse during lessons, and one or two side walkers may walk alongside the rider to assist him if they are needed. Many therapeutic riding schools rely on volunteers to act as horse handlers and side walkers.
Therapeutic riding is based on the idea that the motion of the horse can stimulate the rider’s body, mimicking the movement that would normally occur as a human walks. As the horse sways, he shifts the rider’s pelvis from side to side, stretching and strengthening the rider’s muscles. Riders must constantly balance to keep up with the changing movement of the horse, so through riding the rider develops strength, coordination, and balance.
Riding, and even just interacting with horses provides riders with many additional benefits. Activities such as grooming develop rider flexibility and confidence. Cognitive awareness is also required in working with horses, as is problem solving and empathy. Social skill and communication development occur as the rider interacts with the riding instructor, assistants, and horse.
Riding develops multiple muscles at once, and has the added benefit of increasing rider cognitive function and confidence. While more traditional therapies serve only as just that – therapy – riding is an activity which riders often enjoy, making them eager to return and continue. Therapeutic riding gives riders a sense of accomplishment and empowerment that they might not find elsewhere, and competitions, such as the Special Olympics, allow therapeutic riding program participants to compete.
Today therapeutic riding serves riders with a wide range of disabilities, including cerebral palsy, downs syndrome, arthritis, traumatic brain injuries, autism, behavioral issues, spinal cord injuries, and muscular dystrophy, among many others. The benefits of therapeutic riding are many, and riding can have a significant impact on a rider’s life. For additional information on therapeutic riding, visit the Professional Association of Therapeutic Riding (PATH) at their website.
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