The therapeutic value of horse-related activities was established in Europe during the late 19th Century but this innovative concept only arrived in the United States in the 1940s. National organizations such as the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) have helped standardize practices in this field. Now centers like Leg Up operate across the country.
Riding and interacting with horses benefits participants in many different ways:
Physically, the horse’s movement has a dynamic affect on the rider’s body. The warmth of the horse and the three-dimensional rhythm of its gaits stimulate the rider’s pelvis and trunk in a manner that closely resembles the normal gait of a human. Benefits include normalization of muscle tone, increased strength and endurance, and improved balance and posture.
Cognitively, the horse provides many riders with the motivation to learn new things. Educational goals such as letter recognition and sequencing can be incorporated into riding activities.
Socially, riding provides a non-threatening platform from which to learn empathy, trust, respect, and awareness. The horse is an effective teacher that must be convinced to cooperate and cannot be bullied. Riding encourages students to develop their social skills and learn to interact appropriately with others.
Emotionally, riding can improve self-esteem. The warmth of close physical contact with the horse promotes a sense of security, while the success in overcoming fear and anxiety can help a rider realize self-worth. Additionally, the knowledge that one can care for and interact with a thousand-pound animal does wonders for a rider’s confidence. The feeling of accomplishment gained from riding carries over to other areas of a rider’s life.