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Horsing Around: Therapeutic Riding and Equine Programs in Self-Determination

By Caroline Garrett

Now that social / recreational funding has been reinstated, horseback riding is a common spending plan item we see here at NeuroNav. You may be asking, what are the benefits of working with horses? What exactly is “therapeutic riding”? With the flexibility of Self-Determination, how do I choose an equine program?

Spending time with horses, whether it’s riding, grooming, or just hanging out with them, provides numerous physical, mental, and emotional benefits. The rhythmic movement of riding a horse can help people improve balance, flexibility, coordination, core strength, and posture. Spending time grooming, observing, and caring for horses forms a relationship bond beyond words, allowing those with a variety of communication styles to open up and experience connection through horses. While many are naturally drawn to horses, others may initially view such large, mysterious animals with fear. Learning about and getting to know individual horses can help people process and work through emotions like fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. Horses can be a great mirror for how someone is feeling, allowing for emotional healing without necessarily having to verbally process emotions.

When looking for a disability-inclusive riding program, you may come across the terms “adaptive riding”, “therapeutic riding”, and “hippotherapy”. Adaptive riding is recreational horseback riding in which the type of instruction or level of support provided is modified for someone’s disability. Therapeutic riding is a specific form of horseback riding designed for people with various disabilities that helps individuals develop skills and reach socioemotional, physical, and cognitive goals through horseback riding. Hippotherapy is a 1:1 therapy using horses to facilitate speech, physical, or occupational therapy.

There are many therapeutic riding programs throughout the state of California, and even more horse farms and riding centers. To figure out what equine program is right for you, think about the level of support that you need, the skills you want to learn and goals you want to achieve, and the kind of interaction you want to have with horses.

Riding programs offer a variety of supports - traditional group lessons, customizable private lessons, traditional therapeutic riding which involves someone leading the horse and sidewalkers to help with balance and safety, and even adaptive equipment to modify horseback riding for people with physical disabilities.

If you want to learn social skills and make some friends, a small group class may be a good fit. Therapeutic riding or adaptive riding can help you improve motor skills or cognitive skills like focusing and following directions. For those who need several modifications to safely ride a horse, hippotherapy with an equine specialist and a licensed physical or occupational therapist may work best. If you want to work on your mental health, Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy is a good resource as well. You also don’t have to ride horses to benefit from an equine program! Therapeutic horsemanship uses groundwork exercises (not on horseback) and learning how to care for horses off the saddle to help you reach your goals.

Therapeutic equine programs designed for people with disabilities will typically be certified by PATH Intl. (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International). This information will be displayed on a program’s website. PATH’s website has a list of programs, though there may be more than what is posted on the site.

Depending on the goal, therapeutic horseback riding may also be funded as a nonmedical therapy, which some regional centers are reinstating in addition to social/recreational services. If you’re interested in exploring how horses can benefit you and help you reach your goals, talk to your person-centered planner, Independent Facilitator, or service coordinator.

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