Therapeutic riding can benefit individuals with a wide range of challenges, be it cognitive, physical, emotional, social, or a combination thereof. Horseback riding lends independence and mobility to a person with disabilities who may be otherwise restricted. The ability to ride these magnificent animals gives tremendous physical and psychological benefits to those previously denied the usual scope of outdoor activities. Some of the most common areas of challenge that we see in our program are detailed below.
Benefits of Therapeutic Riding
Hypertonia is an increase in muscle tone, usually seen in the limbs. Hypertonia may be seen in spastic cerebral palsy, stroke, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury or traumatic brain injury. The movement of the horse naturally mirrors our own motion at the walk, and the act of riding the horse can help the rider’s muscles to relax, increasing balance and flexibility. Riding a narrowly-built horse with smooth gaits, these riders can increase the control they have over their limbs while enjoying the freedom and confidence building therapeutic riding can give.
Hypotonia is characterized by a decrease in muscle tone, particularly in the trunk of the body. Hypotonia may exist in riders with ataxic or hypotonic cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, or traumatic brain injury. These riders will usually be seen mounted on wider horses, for stability, with ‘bigger’ gaits in order to greater stimulate weakened muscles. Many times, riders with very weakened core muscles due to hypotonia will not be able to support themselves during their initial rides. However, they find that after just a few months of lessons, they are able to support themselves nearly on their own.
Cognitive impairment refers to any abnormal development or impairment in the social or mental processes involved in interaction, communication, gaining knowledge, planning, etc. This is seen in riders diagnosed with Down syndrome, autism, and Fragile X syndrome, among others. Through interaction with the instructor, volunteers, and the horse, riders with cognitive impairment see both physical and cognitive improvements. Practicing riding skills and games on horseback allows these riders to increase their balance, as well as their sense of body awareness and spatial relationships. Achieving these skills provides the rider with self-confidence and a sense of independence. Communication and task analysis skills are expanded and improved as the rider takes his or her horse through the daily paces of the lesson, working not just with their instructor and volunteers, but often with their classmates as well!
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act defines a learning disability as “. . . a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.” It can be seen in a wide variety of diagnoses such as attention deficient disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or dyslexia. The planning and execution of riding skills, taking place in a patient and supportive environment, can give these riders the confidence to excel in other ‘arenas’ of learning. The movement of the horse itself, along with helping build correct muscle tone in riders with physical disabilities, has been shown to improve cognitive skills as well, such as concentration and short-term memory.
Sensory impairment encompasses a wide range of disabilities, from visual and hearing impairments to dyspraxia and sensory integration/processing dysfunction. The type of horse used will depend greatly on the impacted senses. Riders with a visual impairment benefit from a horse with very even, consistent, yet distinctive gaits, allowing them to develop their sense of where they are in the arena. A rider whose sensory integration disorder gives them a heightened sense of touch and feel would benefit from a horse with very smooth gaits and a fleece pad on the saddle to ensure their comfort during the ride.