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Health Benefits of Therapeutic Horseback Riding


Reprinted from NARHA Strides magazine, July 1996

Autism is a developmental disability that often appears during the first three years of life. Autism is associated with abnormalities in brain structure and neurological disorder of the brain’s function. It vacillates between being the third and fourth most common developmental disabilities. It occurs in approximately 5-15 per 10,000 births. It is four times more common in boys than it is in girls. Autism is not determined by racial, ethnic, social, lifestyle, educational or psychological factors.

Medical Considerations
Riding a horse provides wonderful results that are obtained when these children, many of whom have little sense of their own bodies in space, or little contact with the outside world, come in contact with the Ride On experience. The children develop special relationships with the horses that quickly generalize to increased contact and involvement with teachers, trainers and family members. The sense of confidence and competence they gain from their horsemanship is unparalleled by any other experience.

Attention Deficit Disorder

Reprinted from NARHA Strides magazine, October 1997 (Vol. 3, No. 3).

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is a developmental disability estimated to affect between 3-5% of all children (Barkley, 1990). The disorder is characterized by three predominant features: inattentiveness, impulsivity, and in many but not all cases, restlessness or hyperactivity. The disorder is most prevalent in children and is generally thought of as a childhood disorder. Recent studies, however, show that ADD can and does continue throughout the adult years. Estimates suggest that approximately 50-65% of the children with ADD will have symptoms of the disorder as adolescents and adults (Barkley, 1990).


Medical Considerations
Many parents of riders enrolled in a therapeutic riding program marvel at their child’s newfound skills. The riding center may be one of the first places where their child experiences success and acceptance. The motivating lure of the large, gentle animal, the calm and consistent support of the therapeutic riding team, and the naturally accepting environment of the “stable” provide opportunities for the child to learn and develop. These opportunities may help to turn the often disparaging label of ADD into a child who is Absolutely Delightfully Driven.

Behavioral Health

Reprinted from NARHA Strides magazine, January 1996 (Vol. 2, No. 1)

The riders are brought each week by a teacher who knows they can learn better if they feel better about themselves. They are brought by therapists who hope that horses can reconnect lost feelings, bring back “good touch,” rekindle the love that has been missing in the lives of their patients who have endured years of sexual abuse, physical violence and neglect. Psychiatrists who know that thrill seeking needs can be met in a healthier way than by drugs send them. They come with probation officers that do not want to see the cycle of poverty, abuse and detention continue in yet another generation.  The lineup of people, both young and old, needing the healing power of the horse, riding, being a part of a farm, or finding a new community of caring people goes on and on.


Medical Considerations

These skills naturally evolve for a child who is eager to be with a horse because a horse is extremely “hands on”. Barns and farms demands lots of movement, physical activity, thus they are ideal environments for children to thrive. Also, because horses are bigger than kids are, respect happens naturally. Boundaries and limits make sense. Order prevails. From respect, boundaries, order and all of the critical skills needed to learn can be practiced. It makes sense to the student to follow directions, do things in a logical sequence, work with the group, focus, finish the job, trust the teacher. As these critical skills are practiced, rewards for the child happen naturally, automatically. Best of all, the child can feel within that he did it “right” because the horse responded. No judgement, no blame, no shame.

Brain Injuries

Reprinted from NARHA Strides magazine, April 1996 (Vol. 2, No. 2)

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is defined as an insult to the brain caused by an external physical force that may produce a diminished or altered state of consciousness. This results in an impairment of cognitive abilities and/or physical functioning. The term TBI does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or brain injuries induced by birth trauma.


Medical Considerations

This is a unique problems faced by the person post-TBI, not the diagnosis itself, which may be improved through the use of the horse. In spite of their balance, movement, posture, communication and behavioral problems, horses can provide a strong motivating, consistent, multisensory input that appears to help the rider’s brain organize itself. Gradual recovery from TBI can continue for years, making therapeutic riding a source of stimulation to continue that recovery over a long period of time. A well-planned, carefully implemented riding program can not only facilitate the rider’s recovery from TBI, but also provide a much-needed source of pleasure, risk and self-esteem to a person who really needs it. The attraction of and bonding with the horse can be a positive and stabilizing experience in that person’s life; it also can be an activity in which the whole family can participate. Helping people with TBI to help themselves, through the unique qualities of the horse, is rewarding for everyone.

Down Syndrome

Reprinted from NARHA Strides magazine, October 1996 (Vol. 2, No. 4)

Down Syndrome is the most common and readily identifiable chromosomal condition associated with mental retardation. It is caused by a chromosomal abnormality: for some unexplained reason, an accident in cell development results in 47 instead of the usual 46 chromosomes. The extra genes cause certain characteristics known as Down Syndrome. Individuals with Down Syndrome also have all the other genes given to them by their parents. As a result, they have a combination of features typical of Down Syndrome on top of the individual features from their parents. This includes some degree of mental retardation, or cognitive disability and other developmental delays.  The extra chromosome changes the orderly development of the body and brain.  In most cases, the diagnosis of Down Syndrome is made according to results from a chromosome test administered shortly after birth.


Medical Considerations By Liz Baker, PT, Medical Committee Chairman

Serving people with Down Syndrome in the therapeutic horseback riding setting can be a source of great joy and satisfaction to riders, instructors, therapists and volunteers. These riders are often among the most talented and competitive a program may ever serve. It is helpful to be familiar with a few characteristics of Down Syndrome which will influence the operating center’s decisions as to how to best serve this population.

Learning Disabilities

Reprinted from NARHA Strides magazine, January 1996 (Vol. 2, No. 1)

The term “learning disabilities” is all embracing; it describes a syndrome, not a specific person with a specific problem. Individuals with learning disabilities are not mentally retarded. Learning disabilities are neurologically based disorders and do not affect a person’s intelligence.

Medical Considerations

The horse can also help improve the rider’s sensorimotor difficulties and the learning problems by providing a means of improving awkward movement. It is thought that our early learning of good movement skills is closely related to our self-concept and self-confidence. Poor movement and clumsiness makes play difficult. Children with learning disabilities and motor dysfunction are ostracized by their peers, made fun of and picked last – or not at all – for group games. Thus, socialization skills are impaired as well. The horse can act as a great “equalizer,” providing sensorimotor input and opportunities to practice many skills in a non-threatening way and equally with others.

Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Reprinted from NARHA Strides magazine, January 1997 (Vol. 3, No. 1)

Many authorities agree that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities develop in the same way as people without intellectual and developmental disabilities, but at a slower rate. Others suggest that persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities have difficulties in particular areas of basic thinking and learning such as attention, perception or memory.  Depending on the extent of the impairment—mild, moderate, severe or profound—individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities will develop differently in academic, social and vocational skills.


Medical Considerations By Liz Baker, PT, Medical Committee Chairman

There is great variety in abilities, motivation and functional life skills within the group of people diagnosed with a intellectual and developmental disability. In fact, “People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are as different from one another as are people without intellectual and developmental disabilities—perhaps even more so.” This is a consideration for the therapeutic riding program and its staff planning to serve this population; it is arguably easier to plan for riders who have similarities rather than so much diversity.

Multiple Sclerosis

Reprinted from NARHA Strides magazine, April 1997 (Vol. 3, No. 2)

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is an illness diagnosed in over 350,000 persons in the U.S. today. MS is that it is signified by more than one (multiple) areas of inflammation and scarring of the myelin in the brain and spinal cord. Myelin is the tissue that covers and protects our nerve fibers. When this occurs, nerve “communication” is disrupted. The cause of multiple sclerosis is not yet known. There is no one group of people who “get” MS.  Considered a lifelong disorder, trends show that MS often strikes between the ages of 30 and 50, and mostly women. MS is not considered a fatal, contagious or directly hereditary illness, although a susceptibility to MS may be inherited.


Medical Considerations  By Liz Baker, PT, Medical Committee Chairman

Multiple Sclerosis is one of a growing number of diseases that has a dual identity in therapeutic riding: it can be both an indication for riding, and a precaution or contraindication. This duality, an apparent contradiction, is created by the type of symptoms and problems caused by the disease; its signs and symptoms can be improved by therapeutic riding, worsened by riding, or even preclude riding altogether. In general, however, people with MS are often good candidates for riding, and this activity can help retain functional ability on and off the horse.

Spina Bifida

Reprinted from Strides Magazine, July 1997 (Vol. 3, No. 3)

Spina bifida is a descriptive diagnosis that also goes by the names myelomeningocele, spina bifida cystica, and myelodysplasia. It is diagnosed at birth by the presence of an external sac on the child’s back along the spine. This sac contains the spinal cord and the meninges, the protective layers of tissue that enclose the spinal cord. Surgery is usually performed within days after birth to close the causative defect in the vertebrae so that the myelomeningocele (and the spinal cord) is no longer exposed, and less likely to be injured.


Medical Considerations By Liz Baker, PT, Medical Committee Chairman

In the past, riders with spina bifida have been considered to be the least problematic, most capable and most likely to benefit from horseback riding.  Although the center’s instructors and therapists need to closely monitor the rider for the problems discussed above, therapeutic riding continues to be in most instances a very healthy, beneficial and therapeutic activity for all people with spina bifida. Many such people can progress to high levels of independence in their riding skills and go on to competition. Therapeutic riding can be an excellent lifelong way for the person with spina bifida to maintain or improve functional life skills, fitness and strength, while providing a rewarding experience for the rider and the entire therapeutic riding team.

Visually Impaired

By Liz Baker, PT, Chair, NARHA Health & Education Committee

“Blindness” is the lack or loss of ability to see; it is the lack of perception of visual stimuli, due to the disorder of sight or to lesions in certain areas of the brain. There is a wide variety of the types of blindness, such as color blindess—an inability to correctly perceive colors—and functional blindness, the inability to see although there is no disorder of the organs of sight (the eyes and related nerve connections to the brain).

Medical Considerations By Liz Baker, PT, Chair, NARHA Health & Education Committee

Sighted guide tecnique is a method in which a sighted person assists a person with a visual impairment to move from place to place. Often, a person with low vision may be functional in familiar environments, but need a sighted guide for less familiar places. An orientation and mobility specialist is a rehabilitative health professional who evaluates and instructs the visually impaired in safe travel in any environment, as well as equipment designed to help the visually impaired be more independent while riding.

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