Horsin’ Around – Therapy That Is Fun
Equine-assisted therapy, hippotherapy, therapeutic riding…These are all terms that have specific definitions, but they share a common goal of helping the disabled become enabled through interaction with horses, whether it’s riding, grooming, touching, or just being near the corral watching.
We just call it horseback riding,” said Pat Addabbo, program supervisor, Adaptive Sports Center (ASC) in Crested Butte, Colo. “We give our riders the full ranch experience about an hour’s drive from here at the Cochetopa Hide-A-Way. We do focus on the therapeutic benefits, but many just want the horse or Colorado ranch experience.”
ASC’s arena-based program includes ranch orientation and instruction on grooming, tacking, behavior around horses, controlling the horse, and arena riding. Adaptive equipment and instruction is provided and safety precautions are taken, such as one person leading the horse, and another person walking along the side of the horse to help a rider with balance issues.
“Students work on posture, getting exercise, stretching, working muscles and strengthening body core,” Addabbo said. “The whole ranch experience really makes it attractive.”
“Horseback riding is naturally therapeutic,” said Nicole Budden, founder and director of Happy Trails Riding Center in West Linn, Ore. “Whether they have physical, cognitive, sensory or emotional disabilities, participants benefit from riding or working with horses.
The Benefits & Goal Setting
“For the physically challenged, horseback riding offers many benefits,” she said, such as improved muscle strength, increased range of motion, increased metabolism and improved posture. “Horseback riding, along with mimicking the sensation of walking, can help build muscles that may not or cannot be used otherwise. Psychological benefits include improved confidence and self-esteem, enhancing social relationships, and improving coping skills.”
Before riders come to Happy Trails, they are sent a packet outlining behavior and safety rules around horses. Budden is a NARHA-certified instructor and abides by the Certified Horsemanship Association manual for instruction. “We teach the riders a variety of things about the horse and horsemanship including grooming, handling, behavior, tacking, horse markings, and identifying various parts of the horse. We get our students comfortable with the horse before they actually get on it. We have very few people who don’t want to get on the horse,” she said.
A component of therapeutic riding is goal setting. “At Happy Trails, we want to make horseback riding fun and educational, but then we want to incorporate some skill-building or achievement, whether it’s confidence building, working on speech, strengthening the core, or some other goal. When we know what a rider’s goals are, we’ll do activities to achieve them,” Budden said. “For example, if we are working on speech, we’ll have baskets labeled with a letter of the alphabet and the participant guides the horse around the basket and takes out an item corresponding to it.”
Beth Fox, operations manager for the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD), also talked about the importance of goal setting in therapeutic riding. “We consult with the rider, caregiver, or family member, and determine the goals – cognitive, physical, social, emotional – and then set up the lesson accordingly. For example if someone is trying to be more independent and more advocating for themselves, after going through a horseback riding program, they have controlled a 2,000-pound animal. There is great empowerment and a lot of confidence building in that. And then there are physical benefits, like strength and balance, and cognitive benefits such as understanding and following directions.”
Can’t find a chapter near you? Make sure to check out the list of Paralympic Clubs throughout the country that offer equestrian! Also, there are numerous other adaptive horseback riding programs throughout the country. Ask around at your local riding facilities as they may be able to give you more information about the programs in your area!
Fox said that for individuals who have a problem following directions, colored reins are utilized. “Instead of saying get your hands up closer or let the reins out a little bit, we can say put your hands on the yellow or blue or red, because that’s an indicator they can understand.”
“Some of our riders can’t sit up, so that rider would lie across a horse,” she continued. “It’s really interesting to see that connection between a person and an animal.”
Bareback riding is introduced for a rider with tight muscle groups. “If someone has CP and they have tight adductors and tight hamstrings we may get them started bareback with a blanket because that’s a warm, moving horse, and the muscles can relax and lengthen,” Fox said. “Now the muscles can get into the stirrups, and still riding bareback, they learn how to use the stirrups. Then through time they can graduate to a saddle functional for them. Our goal is to help a person take as much ownership or as much command of this activity independently as possible. We’re really focused on independence and letting people participate at a level of independence appropriate to their diagnosis and appropriate to their goals.”
Ellen Adams, program director of the National Ability Center (NAC), notes that the largest part of adaptive equipment used is the horse itself. “Each horse that enters our program goes through an intensive evaluation process for about three months to determine their appropriateness for the program. We have a wide variety of types of horses to meet the varying needs of our participants. Each participant is individually and carefully matched with a horse to help them achieve their goals,” she said.
The NAC’s Equestrian program encompasses four different types of horseback riding. “We serve a very wide range of individuals ages 2 and up with physical, cognitive, behavioral and emotional disabilities. Each program has a slightly different focus and may be more appropriate for some individuals than others,” Adams said.
“In therapeutic riding lessons for individuals with disabilities, the instructor develops appropriate goals and objectives for each rider, which helps them move towards gaining more independence in riding as well as progressing in other areas of their lives,” Adams said.
Other programs are hippotherapy, which are treatment sessions on horseback delivered by an occupational therapist, physical therapist, or speech pathologist; Camp Giddy-Up, an inclusive summer camp for youth of all abilities; and Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL), a groundwork-based program focused on helping individuals learn about themselves and how they interact with the world around them. It involves a series of activities or tasks performed by the individual with a horse from the ground.
“Groundwork is based on the concepts of communication, trust, self-awareness and respect,” explains Abby Jane Ferrin, TRS, CTRS, Equestrian Programs Manager, via e-mail.
“Horses have a very unique and honest way of teaching us about ourselves. Working on the ground with a horse is like working with a thousand-pound mirror. It is much more difficult to get a horse to do what you want when you are standing on the ground rather than sitting on its back. It puts the individual and the horse on the same level in more of a team work situation rather than the individual ‘dominating’ the horse by sitting on its back with a bit in its mouth.”
“Riding is not a regular component of EFL [Equine-Facilitated Learning] sessions, but may be included if the facilitator feels that a mounted session could bring a new perspective or may be useful in accomplishing a different purpose. Often times this is helpful in allowing the person to carry over the relationship of being trusting and respectful even when they are in a position of power (on the horse),” Ferrin said.
“We also have two sessions of Horses for Heroes,” Fass writes. “A community-based collaboration between C.A.M.O. and Sopris Therapy Services, Horses for Heroes offers two military-based equine therapy camps in the Roaring Fork Valley. Equine Assisted Therapy is proven to be a beneficial and highly effective treatment for numerous physical, neurological, cognitive, and emotional conditions, directly addressing difficulties with movement, gross and fine motor control, perception, problem solving and expressive/receptive language.”
Some NAC riders train for competitions. “Every year we host the state Special Olympics equestrian games. We have quite a few riders who prepare for and compete in the event,” Adams said. “We also have an annual Horse Show and Rodeo that the majority of our participants compete in. When our riders express interest, we help them train for and go to local mainstream horse shows and competitions. This involves training in western pleasure, trails, barrel racing, pole bending, English equitation, dressage, and more. We currently have one rider who is working towards riding in the Paralympics.”
Challenge Aspen offers equine therapy as part of its Outdoor Adventure Camp, open to participants ages 8-18 with autism spectrum disorders, and equine therapy for the wounded warriors, according to Michael Fass of Challenge Aspen.
To learn more about competitions in your area, talk with your local therapeutic riding program’s program manager or your instructor.
Para-Equestrian- The Three Disciplines
In Para-Equestrian, there are three major disciplines: Para-Dressage, Para-Driving, and Para-Reining. However Para-Dressage is the only discipline that competes at both the Paralympics and the World Equestrian Games.
The goal of Para-Dressage is to display the gracefulness, balance, and attentiveness of the horse. In Para-Dressage, the rider tells the horse to perform precise movements founded on three basic gaits—walk, trot, and cantor—using very subtle signals in a show ring. The horse and rider are then judged on how well they can complete these movements and how easily they can transition from one movement to the next. There are three dressage events; in the first, the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Special, the elements that the horse and rider have to complete as well as the path they have to take around the show ring—the figures—are outlined in a set order by the judges. In freestyle, the rider and horse decide the order of the elements and their path to best showcase their abilities. In this event, their movements and figures are choreographed to instrumental music. To learn more about Para-Dressage, check out this video explaining the discipline from the International Federation for Equestrian Sports. To find Para-Dressage competitions,
Para-Dressage first became part of the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta, GA. At the Paralympics, riders can compete individually or as a team. To learn more about how to become a Paralympian, how to become classified, and how to qualify, check out the US Equestrian Federation’s Para-Equestrian Coaching Guide or the US Para-Equestrian Association.
To find Para-Dressage competitions, check out the US Equestrian Federation’s calendar of events.
In Para-Driving, the individual does not ride a horse. Instead, he or she drives a carriage or cart that is drawn by a single equine (horse, pony, or mule); a pair; or a team of four. This discipline has two major events: pleasure driving and combined driving.
Pleasure Driving: Pleasure Driving events take place in a show ring. In this event, numerous classes exist based on the type of equine, the size of the equine, the number of equines hitched to the vehicle, the type and style of vehicle, the driver, the experience of the equine/driver, and the criteria for which the driver and equine team are being judged. Sometimes the class competitions will include obstacles, such as cones with balls on top. The driver accrues penalties if he knocks the cones and balls over.
Combined Driving: This event is made up of three smaller events: dressage, the marathon, and a cones obstacle course. In dressage, the driver must demonstrate his equine’s obedience and gracefulness as well as his skill as the handler. In the marathon event, the driver must balance speed and pace in order to navigate twists and turns through various gates and obstacles and to finish each section of the course within the time allotted. The last component of the marathon consists of drivers completing a series of marathon obstacles, including up to 6 gates. Competitors coming galloping towards the last set of obstacles, barely clearing each gate. The final event, the cones obstacle course, requires the driver to navigate a course of up to 20 gates at the required pace without receiving penalties. The driver can receive penalties by knocking over the balls placed on the driving cones throughout the course.
To learn more about Para-Driving, qualifying, and classification, and Para-Driving competitions, please visit US Driving for the Disabled.
Para-Reining is a sport in which the athletic ability and agility of a ranch, as well as the skill of the rider are put to the test in a show ring. The rider has to make the horse navigate through complex patterns using specific movements, such as small slow circles, large fast circles, flying changes of lead, roll-backs, quick 360-degree spins, and sliding stops.
Para-Equestrian Coaching Guide- US Equestrian Federation
National Governing Body- US Equestrian Federation
National Governing Body Affiliate- United States Para-Equestrian Association
International Governing Body- International Federation for Equestrian Sports
Para-Equestrian- Team USA
Paralympic Para-Equestrian- International Paralympic Committee
Adaptive Equine Instructor Credentialing- Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.)
International Equine-Assisted Therapy Education Organization- American Hippotherapy Association Inc.
How to Become Hippotherapy Certified- American Hippotherapy Association Inc.
Hippotherapy Credentialing- American Hippotherapy Certification Board