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The Use of Horses as a Treatment Tool for Recreational Therapy

A Trail Ride to Indepedence 

By Rheta D. Conner, CTRS

Using the horse as a treatment tool for Recreational Therapy simply works for many clients, with each gleaning the rewards in her or his own personal way. Horses can enlighten the cognitive, emotional, physical, social, and to some degree, spiritual domains of a human being. Individuals diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy, depression, Down syndrome, emotional disorders, mood disorders, multiple sclerosis, obesity, scoliosis, spina bifida, stroke, and traumatic brain injuries can benefit from Equine Therapy.

Grooming the horse is good for increasing fine and gross motor skills by simply brushing the horse’s body. The process of grooming can be used to help increase an individual’s academic skills, communication, memory recall, and speech. The motions used to groom also help to improve eye-hand coordination, flexibility, range-of-motion and upper body strength. In addition to the physical benefits of grooming, the process of grooming helps to create a bond between the horse and the human, which helps to decrease anxiety, depression, and in some cases fear, and in exchange builds a relationship between horse and rider that promotes normalization, respect for one’s self and others, and self-confidence. Through the grooming process individuals experience a wide range of sensory and tactile stimulation from the feel of the horse’s body to the feel of the grooming tools and the sensations they produce.

The process of tacking the horse involves putting the saddle and bridle on the horse. Tacking requires multiple steps and helps an individual’s cognition with decision making, following directions, and sequencing. While tacking, the rider works on making choices by choosing the color of pad and reins. He or she carries the saddle and puts it on the back of the horse then ties the cinch knot or buckles the girth. Tacking requires the rider to use her or his fine and gross motor skills, by buckling straps, opening and closing snaps, tying knots, using upper body strength, and walking. The rider is responsible for putting on a safety helmet and walking the horse prior to mounting. Mounting can be from a platform, a block or the ground, depending on the rider’s ability.

Horseback riding itself is good for promoting assertiveness, balance, confidence, communication, decision making, equilibrium, eye-hand coordination, head control, integration, muscle strengthening, normalization, posture, social interaction, speech, and trunk control. The natural rhythm of the horse aids in circulation and relaxation while gently exercising and massaging the rider’s joints, muscles and spine. Using barrels and poles in the arena increases the challenge to maintain balance, coordination and eye contact. Riding allows individuals an opportunity to be out in nature, fresh air, and a change of scenery, which provides sensory and tactile stimulation.

For individuals who are non-ambulatory, the horse’s movement at a walk simulates the movement of the human body at a walk. When the horse moves forward, the rider’s pelvis naturally moves with the horse’s movement. This mimics the sensation of walking, and stimulates the muscles, organs and tissues in the body, which otherwise become static and atrophic. The movement of the horse also promotes vestibular stimulation and spatial perception. Vestibular stimulation involuntarily occurs by taking the movement of the horse up through the spine of the rider to her or his inner ear. Spatial perception natural occurs when the horse acclimatizes to the terrain and environmental conditions. Such conditions include walking up and down hills, through the mud, on dry ground, through the grass, on the stones, or across the creek, and riding on days that are cloudy, cold, hot, humid, rainy, snowy, sunny, and / or windy.

After riding the rider dismounts, either at a platform or to the ground, and with or without assistance, depending on her or his physical abilities. He or she is then responsible to untack the horse by untying the cinch knot or unbuckling the girth, and taking the saddle and pad off the back of the horse, with or without assistance, again depending on her or his abilities. The act of tacking and untacking helps to teach normalization and responsibility, and requires the individual to utilize her or his cognitive skills by recalling and sequencing the steps necessary to complete the tasks, and to use her or his fine and gross motor skills.

Through the entire horseback riding process, safety is always first and foremost the most important concern for the Recreational Therapist. According to the North American Horsemen’s Association (NAHA), horses can be five to fifteen times larger, twenty to forty times more powerful and three to four times faster than human beings. Horses have minds of their own; they do not have a key that one can simply turn on and off. They, like humans have their good days and their bad days. Horseback riding is considered a sport and it is the only sport in which a smaller, weaker creature, the Human, strives to control and become part of a larger, powerful creature, the Horse. Riders are taught how to safely walk around the horse, how to safely pick out the hooves, how to safely secure the saddle onto the back of the horse, how to safely mount and dismount the horse, and how to use her or his body to safely stay on the horse. Some individuals learn to independently demonstrate safety around horses while others require modeled, physical, verbal or visual prompts.

To sum it up, through horseback riding an individual is challenged to excel in an activity that rewards her or him both externally and internally. It provides opportunities for the individual to successfully compensate for her or his uniqueness, looking not at the disability, but the ability, and acquiring a desire to adapt to independent living.

About the Author: Rheta D Conner is co-owner of Dusty Dreams, LLC in Avilla, Indiana, which provides Equine-assisted Therapy to children and adults. She graduated from Indiana Institute of Technology with a BS degree in Therapeutic Recreation and received her CTRS (Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist) certification in June 2004.  She works with Meaningful Day Services in Brownsburg, Indiana, and provides Recreational Therapy services at Dusty Dreams as well as some in-home services. She is a Certified Therapeutic Horseback Riding Instructor with NARHA and a CHA Certified Instructor. Rheta’s love for horses started almost forty-years ago when as a teenager she got her first horse, a little buckskin named Sandy.