The science behind equine-assisted activities and therapeutic riding – Part I

Learn more about the science behind equine-assisted therapy and what benefits riders take from the experience.

One might ask the question, “What’s the science behind the equine-therapy?” Trinity Equestrian explains, “It's about neurology and bio-physics, and how our brain is constantly communicating with our body. The brain is always assessing its surroundings, making adjustments and compensating. Sometimes through injury or illness, those assessment and compensation pathways are impaired or change, creating a disability. Those pathways need to be strengthened and rehabilitated.” Michigan State University Extension educators contend that equine therapy is a viable activity that works to do just that.

The movement of the horse as a person is riding at a simple walk gives them balance, coordination and self-confidence. The movement and unique walking gait of a horse or pony most closely resembles that of a human. Therefore, when a person is riding a horse, the rhythm and motion is therapeutic; the body gains strength through its adjustment to the horse’s gait. A new study conducted in Texas supports the positive outcomes of equine therapy.

Several national associations affirm the impact of equine therapy. The American Hippotherapy Association  recognizes hippotherapy and its use of equine by physical, occupational and speech therapists. “Hippotherapy” is defined by the organization as “a type of treatment that uses the multidimensional movement of the horse in medical treatment.” A rider telling his horse to, “Walk on,” or “Whoa!” is considered therapy for an individual with speech challenges.

Beyond the physical benefits of riding, psychologists are finding that equine may also have psychosocial and emotional value as well. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) programs view these psychological benefits as individuals work with equine and discover fears, anxiety or mistrust.

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) formerly known as the “North American Riding for the Handicapped Association,” has been providing equine therapy certification, education and resources for many years. Since the formation in 1969, a substantial amount of anecdotal and scientific evidence has emerged underscoring the benefits of therapeutic riding for people with disabilities. In addition, the 4-H Proud Equestrians Program partners with PATH in certifying qualified instructors for 4-H recreational riding programs for individuals with disabilities throughout Michigan.

The Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Augusta, Mich. is another example of a facility that knows the benefits of equine therapy. A patron-turned-volunteer of the Cheff Center explained in an article written for “Connections: A Newsletter of Volunteer Kalamazoo,” “To teach these students, I have to use coping skills that [Cheff taught me] for my disability.” The volunteer explained that the confidence and coping skills that come with learning to ride a horse are skills that riders can transfer to other areas of life.

The poem “I Saw a Child” by John Anthony Davies provides a poetic visual of the benefits behind equine-assisted activities and therapeutic riding for riders:

I saw a child, who couldn’t walk, sit on a horse, laugh and talk.
Then ride it through a field of daisies and yet he could not walk unaided.
I saw a child, no legs below, sit on a horse and make it go.
Through woods of green and places he had never been; to sit and stare, except from a chair.
I saw a child who could only crawl mount a horse and sit up tall.
Put it through degrees of paces and laugh at the wonder in our faces.
I saw a child born into strife, take up and hold the reins of life.
And that same child was heard to say,
Thank you God for showing me the way…

Some equine-assisted activities and therapeutic riding and the research-based benefits for the rider have been shared in this first part of this article series. Look for part two which will share the benefits the equine take from this kind of experience.

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