Anyone who has ever had a special bond with an animal knows how powerful that connection can be. Spending time with animals can be bring us comfort, joy, a sense of peace, and unconditional love and acceptance. In a caring relationship with animals, how we respond to one another invokes a deep sense of wellbeing and healing. This is true for us as humans, as well as the animals being cared for. Equestrian Therapy makes use of this beautiful interconnection between species, creating a therapeutic experience that benefits the mind, body, and the spirit.
Historically, the therapeutic practice of horseback riding dates back thousands of years to the time of the ancient Greeks. However, therapeutic riding programs did not become mainstreamed until more recent times, emerging throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States in the 1960’s.
In 1969, the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) was founded. Since that time, equestrian therapy programs have expanded exponentially as their wide range of benefits have been recognized, as well as the diversity of the populations that they serve.
What You can Expect
Various riding centers offer an assortment of activities that are guided by an equine specialist along with expertly trained horses. These activities may include horseback riding or horse care such as feeding, grooming, saddling, or leading. Some programs include recreational and goal-oriented activities specifically geared to work with individuals or in group environments. Regulated equestrian programs by licensed healthcare professionals include physical, occupational, speech, and mental health therapies.
The benefits of equine therapy are extensive for mental health and physical health. With positive animal interaction comes improved emotional wellbeing due to increased serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin levels, the feel-good chemicals our bodies create intrinsically. Other physiological indicators include a reduction in stress from a decrease in cortisol levels, as well as lower blood pressure. The advantages are many, and the broad spectrum of populations it can support is remarkable.
Improvements for populations diagnosed with:
Autism Spectrum Disorder (see Rowan's story below)
Visual, auditory, and speech disabilities
Improvements for individuals who have experienced or suffer from:
Neglect, physical, mental, or sexual abuse
Spinal cord injury/paralysis
The striking benefits of equestrian therapy are obtained due to the unique relationship with the animal, an undeniable but impalpable connection, as well as the natural circumstances of the activities. Horses respond instantly, giving feedback to the rider (or caretaker). They behave in a similar social manner as humans, which allows for a bonding relationship, and they can mirror a rider’s emotions offering important insight. They are also non-judgmental and unconditionally accepting to caring individuals.
Skill Building Benefits
Strength and balance
Physical endurance and dexterity
Confidence and self-esteem
Improved relationships, social skills, and empathy
Emotional awareness & regulation
Trust, selflessness, and responsibility
Decrease anger and aggression
Learn limits and boundaries
The Extraordinary Tale of the Horse Boy
Rupert Isaacson, a journalist, and former horse trainer, learned of his son Rowan’s diagnosis of autism when he was 2 ½-years-old. He was non-verbal and had many tantrums throughout the day. Rupert, and his wife, Kristin tried all of the recommended services available, occupational therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy, as well as supplements and probiotics but with no improvements.
An interesting event transpired on the very week Rowan’s speech therapist had given up. Rowan took off from his father and ran into their neighbor’s yard up to a horse named Betsy. Betsy’s response was remarkably submissive and accepting so Rupert placed his son on the gentle horse’s back. Rowan started talking immediately. There was an instant connection between the two.
Rupert began riding Betsy with Rowan daily. The faster they went, the better the results. It was clear that the rhythmic riding, or cantering, had a soothing effect on Rowan, cancelling out the otherwise overstimulated nervous system that he was unable to manage most of the time. For 3 years they road regularly for 3 to 4 hours a day. With letters placed on trees they road by, Rowan then learned to read (kinetic learning).
With a background in journalism, Rupert was trained to be an observer, combined with his knowledgebase of horses, he was able to recognize the therapeutic value of what was happening here. The oxytocin released in the brain, responsible for happiness and communication, was counterbalancing the cortisol from the stress response of managing autism, and Rowan was finally able to learn. It was a miraculous discovery. (Liggett, 2016).
Following this discovery, The Horse Boy Method (equine based), and the Movement Method (neuroscience and movement based) were developed for individuals with neuro-differences. Since the implementation of these programs, the methods have been researched and endorsed by several universities and neuroscientists. You can find more information about these programs here, with online education available: New Trails Learning Systems (ntls.co)
To learn more about Rowan’s story, and how a trip to Mongolia with shamanic healing profoundly furthered his progress, you can find The Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson, a bestselling book that was also captured in documentary format.
Equestrian therapy centers are often geared toward specific populations of people and have very specialized purposes. Inquire as to what is available near you and reach out. Those in the field tend to be exceptionally caring people. If their establishment is not a strong match, they may be able to direct you to one that is.
Liggett, J. (Producer), Meredith, R. & Isaacson, R. (Performers). (2016). Open minds: Healing autism with horses with Rupert Isaacson. [Documentary] Season 6, episode 18, Gaia Television.