Equestrian therapy uses horses to promote emotional growth for people who have a variety of medical conditions including autism, ADD, dementia, anxiety, Down syndrome, delay in mental development, trauma and brain injuries, behavioural and abuse issues, depression and mental health conditions.
Equestrian therapy is also recognised as an effective technique to teach troubled youths how to react, follow instructions and learn. An example of the therapy is when students are asked to move a horse without touching it. Those who try clapping, shouting and whistling find that the horse won’t move, so they learn that shouting or forcing a person to do something is not the right way to behave.
Horses are commonly used for therapy because their responsive and social behaviour is recognised as being similar to that of a human being. They will respond immediately to a person’s actions giving feedback, while they can also mirror the rider’s emotion, making it easier for patients to establish a connection with the horse. Other animals such as dolphins, cats and dogs can also be used for therapy but horses are the most popular choice.
Equestrian Therapy History
Using horse-riding as therapy was first mentioned as long ago as 600BC in Ancient Greek literature, when Orbasis of Lydia wrote how riding was far more than a means of transport as it also provided emotional benefits. Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates – born around 460BC – also wrote of the physical and emotional benefits horse riding could bring.
In 1875, French physician Cassaign completed the first study of the value of riding for therapy. He treated various conditions using riding as therapy and reported it helped to improve the quality of life for people with various types of neurological disorders by improving joint movement, balance and posture, as well as providing emotional improvements.
When there was an outbreak of polio across Scandinavia in 1946, equestrian therapy was introduced to aid recovery. In 1950’s UK, physiotherapists began to explore riding as therapy for various types of health problems, leading to the launch of the British Riding for the Disabled Association in 1965. The charity, Riding for the Disabled Association, began in 1969 with support from the Royal Family.
Therapeutic riding began in the United States in 1960, when the Community Association of Riding for the Disabled was formed. In 1969, the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Centre was established in Michigan. Today, equestrian therapy is widely practised all over the world to aid people with many medical conditions.
Positive results have been achieved for people who have psychomotor, cognitive and behavioural disabilities, as certified therapists help people who have a disability to lead a better quality of life. Equine therapy is also enjoyable, so the patients rarely feel like they are having therapy as they bond with the horse.
The aim is to help build the patients’ feelings of self-worth, improve their communication, develop skills in socialising to decrease feelings of isolation, increase trust and self-efficiency and improve emotional management.
Any patients who feel intimidated by the horse’s size and don’t wish to ride at first can enjoy other activities until they develop trust. Lessons in caring for horses, grooming, saddling and basic equestrian knowledge are included in the therapeutic courses.
The targeted skills are large motor or large muscle groups, fine motor, behavioural skills and communication skills. Equine therapists will tailor the activities to the patient’s individual needs, depending on their condition and its severity.
The primary techniques include play therapy, cognitive therapy, activity scheduling and practising activities. Forming a bond with the horse is known to improve self-esteem, confidence, motivation and patience in people who are dealing with emotional stress.
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