What is Therapeutic Riding?
The personal goals set for each rider vary as much as the riders do. Improved physical strength, muscle tone, balance, mobility and hand-eye coordination are some of the visibly enhanced skills. The more subtle improvements are increased self-esteem, self-control and self-confidence. These goals are reached through a highly individualized lesson plan of learning to ride the horse with the instructor taking into account the rider's physical, emotional, and mental strengths and limitations. The increased attention, concentration, learning, and verbal skills that are inherent in learning to ride successfully lead to the magical bond with the horse, leading to improved social skills such as making new friends and respecting authority.
The History of Therapeutic Riding
It is not clear when riding for the disabled became a specialized field, but history records people with disabilities riding horses as early as the days of the ancient Greeks. Orbasis of ancient Lydia documented the therapeutic value of riding in 600 B.C. Even then, it was acknowledged that riding was more than a means of transportation; it was also a way of improving the health and well-being of people with handicaps.
The first study of the value of riding as therapy was reported in 1875. French physician Cassaign used riding as a treatment for a variety of conditions, and concluded that it was helpful in the treatment of certain kinds of neurological disorders by improving posture, balance and joint movement, as well as psychological improvements.
At the turn of the century, England recognized riding for the disabled as a beneficial form of therapy and offered riding therapy for wounded soldiers at the Oxford Hospital during World War I. By the 1950's, British physiotherapists were exploring the possibilities of riding as therapy for all types of handicaps. The British Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) was founded in 1969 with the enthusiastic support of the Royal Family.
Riding therapy was introduced in Scandanavia in 1946 after two devastating outbreaks of poliomyelitis. Lis Hartel, an accomplished horsewoman, was stricken with the disease. Although surgery and physiotherapy helped her to walk again with the aid of crutches, she was determined to ride independently again and began daily supervised riding sessions to improve her muscle strength and coordination. Liz Hartel brought attention to riding for the disabled when she won the silver medal for Dressage at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. She and Ulla Harpoth, a physical therapist from Copenhagen, went on to use horses as therapy for their patients.
Therapeutic Horseback Riding came to both the United States and Canada in 1960, with the formation of the Community Association of Riding of the Disabled. In the United States, riding for the disabled developed as a form of recreation and as a means of motivation for education, as well as for its therapeutic benefits. In 1969 the Cheff Center for the Handicapped was established in Michigan, and remains the oldests center specifically for people with disabilities in the United States. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) was founded in 1969 to serve as an advisory body to the various riding for the disabled groups across the United States and its neighboring countries. NARHA provides safety guidelines and training, certifies therapeutic riding instructors, accredits therapeutic riding centers according to its own high standards, disseminates information, and offers low-cost insurance to its member organizations.
Today, disabled riders demonstrate their remarkable accomplishments in national and international sport riding competitions. Hippotherapy (physical therapy on horseback, using the horse as the therapist) has developed as a medical field recognized by most major countries. Equine Facilitated Mental Health, Equine Experiential Learning and other forms of therapy involving horses are gaining in popularity. Medical doctors, psychiatrists, physical and occupational therapists, speech therapists, and teachers all refer patients and students to riding programs for the disabled. Therapeutic Riding has become a well recognized and acclaimed method of improving the lives of those who refuse to let their disabilities limit them.