Equine-Assisted Therapy: Benefits, Uses, and Disciplines

31 January, 2021
Equine-assisted therapy uses horses to reach patients' different rehabilitative goals. It can be helpful for children with autism, Rett Syndrome, and cerebral palsy, among others. Learn more in today's article!

The therapeutic options available to people with some kind of disorder or disability are growing. One approach that can help patients improve their quality of life is equine-assisted therapy.

These options aren’t new, but they carry much more weight than they used to. With these kinds of alternative therapies, patients can get to know themselves better, as well as enhance their personal development and quality of life.

In the case of equine-assisted therapy, horses take center stage. Studies show that equine-assisted therapy, or EAT, can be beneficial for people on the autism spectrum, patients with cerebral palsy, and other disorders or illnesses. Interested in learning more? Who invented this approach? Who is it for? Are there different methods within EAT? Keep reading to find out!

A woman doing equine therapy.

What’s equine-assisted therapy?

EAT, also called horse therapy or equestrian therapy, is a great alternative for people with some kind of neurodevelopment disability or disorder, such as autism.

The goal is to assist the patient with their cognitive, physical, emotional, social, and/or occupational development through a series of exercises, games, and activities with horses. In a more general sense, it can improve patients’ well-being and quality of life.

During an EAT session, the patient can ride, brush, pet, and feed the horse. They might also play with the horse or do different activities while on the horse. Each patient, depending on their physical and psychological characteristics, will have their own unique treatment that allows them to get the most out of their interaction with the horse.

Origin

The practice of horse therapy dates back to the ancient Greeks, who recommended horseback riding to prevent and cure aches and pains of the body and mind.

The formal practice of equine-assisted therapy started in Mexico in 1969. A trainer at the Mexican Olympic Athletic Center, Rogelio Hernandez Huerta, is credited as the original creator. That same year, the first specialized center for horse therapy was founded, as well as the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA). NARHA’s mission is to coordinate and provide official recognition for centers and individuals who offer horse therapy.

Who is this therapy for?

As we mentioned above, equine-assisted therapy is great for people with a physical or mental disability. It can also be helpful for other types of problems that we’ll mention below. EAT is appropriate for children and adults. Health professionals recommend horse therapy most often for people with the following conditions:

  • Disabilities (physical, mental, or sensory).
  • Neurodevelopment disorders (autism, for example).
  • Social adaptation problems.
  • Other kinds of illnesses.

Equestrian therapy can be especially useful for anyone on the autism spectrum, patients with cerebral palsy or Rett syndrome, spinal and/or brain injury, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, etc. In each case, the therapist makes the appropriate adjustments to the activities and the therapeutic goals.

The benefits of equine-assisted therapy

The psychological and physical benefits of horse therapy are backed by research. The most important psychological and emotional benefits are the following:

  • Improves self-esteem.
  • Better emotional self-control.
  • Enhances self-confidence.
  • Stimulates memory and attention.
  • Fosters respect for nature and animals.

Some of the physical benefits of horse therapy are better muscle development and balance, strength, muscle tone, motor skills, coordination, endurance, etc.

Equine-assisted therapy and autism

As we’ve mentioned several times, equine-assisted therapy is great for children with autism. A study conducted by Perez, et al. (2008) found that horse therapy provides four kinds of stimulation for young patients: vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile, and motor.

Another study by De La Prieta (2017) found that that the heat and vibrations emitted by the horse, as well as their three-dimensional movements. can stimulate nerve structures, which is good for their development.

Yet another study conducted by Delgado and Sanchez (2015) and published in Mediciego, found that children with autism can form an emotional connection with horses. Riding them also gives them a sense of security that has a positive impact on their self-esteem.

A child on a horse.

Types of horse therapy

Within equine-assisted therapy are different disciplines. Here are some of the most well-known:

  • Therapeutic horseback riding. This involves doing exercises while on the horse. It can improve balance and coordination.
  • Hippotherapy. In this type of EAT, the patient does physical therapy exercises with and on the horse. The goal is to use the heat transmitted by the horse as well as its rhythmic and three-dimensional movement to help the patient.
  • Equine-assisted learning (EAL). EAL is very popular and consists of patient adaptation with the horse and everything involved with caring for a horse. It can increase motivation, stimulate emotional expression, and improve concentration, among other benefits.
  • Adaptive riding. For people with different functional conditions who already practice horseback riding. The goal is to adapt the sport to the patient’s needs.

In conclusion, equine-assisted therapy is a therapeutic tool with undeniable benefits. It’s a great alternative therapy for children with autism and other pathologies or disorders.

It’s also great for adults, since the variety of disciplines makes it appropriate for people with all types of issues. The person who accompanies the patient during their therapy should always be a qualified and accredited professional, usually a specialized physical therapist.

  • Engel, B.T. (1997). Therapeutic Riding: Its benefits, professions and divisions. In Engel, B.T. Therapeutic Riding, I: Strategies for Instruction Part I. Durango, co: Barbara Engel therapy services.
  • García, S. (2010). Equinoterapia: Un binomio con fines terapéutico. Universidad Veracruzana. Médico Veterinario Zootecnista.
  • Pérez, L., Rodríguez, J. y Rodríguez, N. (2008): La Equinoterapia en el tratamiento de la discapacidad infantil. Revista Archivo Médico de Camagüey, 12(1).