Horsing Around–Therapy That Is Fun

Equine-assisted therapy. Hippotherapy. Therapeutic riding. These are all terms that have specific definitions, but they share a common goal of helping the disabled become enabled through interaction with horses, whether it’s riding, grooming, touching, or just being near the corral watching.

?We just call it horseback riding,? said Pat Addabbo, program supervisor, Adaptive Sports Center (ASC) in Crested Butte, Colo. ?We give our riders the full ranch experience about an hour?s drive from here at the Cochetopa Hide-A-Way. We do focus on the therapeutic benefits, but many just want the horse or Colorado ranch experience.?

ASC?s arena-based program includes ranch orientation and instruction on grooming, tacking, behavior around horses, controlling the horse, and arena riding. Adaptive equipment and instruction is provided and safety precautions are taken, such as one person leading the horse, and another person walking along the side of the horse to help a rider with balance issues.

?Students work on posture, getting exercise, stretching, working muscles and strengthening body core,? Addabbo said. ?The whole ranch experience really makes it attractive.?

?Horseback riding is naturally therapeutic,? said Nicole Budden, founder and director of Happy Trails Riding Center in West Linn, Ore. ?Whether they have physical, cognitive, sensory or emotional disabilities, participants benefit from riding or working with horses.

?For the physically challenged, horseback riding offers many benefits,? she said, such as improved muscle strength, increased range of motion, increased metabolism and improved posture. ?Horseback riding, which mimics the sensation of walking, can help build muscles that may not or cannot be used otherwise. Psychological benefits include improved confidence and self-esteem, enhancing social relationships, and improving coping skills.?

Before riders come to Happy Trails, they are sent a packet outlining behavior and safety rules around horses. Budden is a NARHA-certified instructor and abides by the Certified Horsemanship Association manual for instruction. ?We teach the riders a variety of things about the horse and horsemanship including grooming, handling, behavior, tacking, horse markings, and identifying various parts of the horse. We get our students comfortable with the horse before they actually get on it. We have very few people who don’t want to get on the horse,? she said.

A component of therapeutic riding is goal setting. ?At Happy Trails, we want to make horseback riding fun and educational, but then we want to incorporate some skill-building or achievement, whether it’s confidence building, working on speech, strengthening the core, or some other goal. When we know what a rider?s goals are, we’ll do activities to achieve them,? Budden said. ?For example, if we are working on speech, we’ll have baskets labeled with a letter of the alphabet and the participant guides the horse around the basket and takes out an item corresponding to it.?

Budden said Happy Trails trains horses on games and activities before integrating them with riders. ?Horses have to learn to be used to different noises, wheelchairs, mounting platforms, and more. We go through different activities and games with the horses over and over again so they are comfortable with things that they may not have previously encountered.?

Organizations that offer therapeutic riding for the disabled have a wide range of adaptive equipment to assist in mounting the horse and securing riders in the saddle. These include: mounting blocks or platforms of varying sizes, mounting platforms with ramps for wheelchair users, high-back saddles to support a weak spine or back and shoulder muscles, Australian saddles, which offer a deeper seat, honeycombed pads to avoid pressure sores, breakaway stirrups so a rider isn?t dragged in case of a fall, and more.

Beth Fox, operations manager for the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD), said that for individuals who have a problem following directions, colored reins are utilized. ?Instead of saying get your hands up closer or let the reins out a little bit, we can say put your hands on the yellow or blue or red, because that’s an indicator they can understand.?

Fox also talked about the importance of goal setting in therapeutic riding. ?We consult with the rider, caregiver, or family member, and determine the goals ? cognitive, physical, social, emotional ? and then set up the lesson accordingly. For example if someone is trying to be more independent and more advocating for themselves, after going through a horseback riding program, they have controlled a 2,000-pound animal. There is great empowerment and a lot of confidence building in that. And then there are physical benefits, like strength and balance, and cognitive benefits such as understanding and following directions.

?Some of our riders can’t sit up, so that rider would lie across a horse,? she continued. ?It’s really interesting to see that connection between a person and an animal.?

A typical session at NSCD begins with starting to know the horse. ?We’re grooming the horse, tacking (putting on the saddle and bridle), walking the horse and getting into the arena where we do a lot of equitation exercises and therapeutic games and activities. We provide instruction on how to get the horse to move, how to give the walk on command, how to use the rein, how to move left and right, along with how to balance in the saddle, whether its western, English saddle, or bareback.

Bareback riding is introduced for a rider with tight muscle groups. ?If someone has CP and they have tight adductors and tight hamstrings we may get them started bareback with a blanket because that’s a warm, moving horse, and the muscles can relax and lengthen,? Fox said. ?Now the muscles can get into the stirrups, and still riding bareback, they learn how to use the stirrups. Then through time they can graduate to a saddle functional for them. Our goal is to help a person take as much ownership or as much command of this activity independently as possible. We’re really focused on independence and letting people participate at a level of independence appropriate to their diagnosis and appropriate to their goals.?

Ellen Adams, program director of the National Ability Center (NAC), notes that the largest part of adaptive equipment used is the horse itself. ?Each horse that enters our program goes through an intensive evaluation process for about three months to determine their appropriateness for the program. We have a wide variety of types of horses to meet the varying needs of our participants. Each participant is individually and carefully matched with a horse to help them achieve their goals,? she said.

The NAC?s Equestrian program encompasses four different types of horseback riding. ?We serve a very wide range of individuals ages 2 and up with physical, cognitive, behavioral and emotional disabilities. Each program has a slightly different focus and may be more appropriate for some individuals than others,? Adams said.

?In therapeutic riding lessons for individuals with disabilities, the instructor develops appropriate goals and objectives for each rider, which helps them move towards gaining more independence in riding as well as progressing in other areas of their lives,? Adams said.

Other programs are hippotherapy, which are treatment sessions on horseback delivered by an occupational therapist, physical therapist, or speech pathologist; Camp Giddy-Up, an inclusive summer camp for youth of all abilities; and Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL), a groundwork-based program focused on helping individuals learn about themselves and how
they interact with the world around them. It involves a series of activities or tasks performed by the individual with a horse from the ground.

?Groundwork is based on the concepts of communication, trust, self-awareness and respect,? explains AbbyJane Ferrin, TRS, CTRS, Equestrian Programs Manager, via e-mail.

?Horses have a very unique and honest way of teaching us about ourselves. Working on the ground with a horse is like working with a thousand-pound mirror. It is much more difficult to get a horse to do what you want when you are standing on the ground rather than sitting on its back. It puts the individual and the horse on the same level in more of a team work situation rather than the individual ?dominating? the horse by sitting on its back with a bit in its mouth.?

?Riding is not a regular component of EFL sessions, but may be included if the facilitator feels that a mounted session could bring a new perspective or may be useful in accomplishing a different purpose. Often times this is helpful in allowing the person to carry over the relationship of being trusting and respectful even when they are in a position of power (on the horse),? Ferrin said.

Some NAC riders train for competitions. ?Every year we host the state Special Olympics equestrian games. We have quite a few riders who prepare for and compete in the event,? Adams said. ?We also have an annual Horse Show and Rodeo that the majority of our participants compete in. When our riders express interest, we help them train for and go to local mainstream horse shows and competitions. This involves training in western pleasure, trails, barrel racing, pole bending, English equitation, dressage, and more. We currently have one rider who is working towards riding in the Paralympics.?

Challenge Aspen offers equine therapy as part of its Outdoor Adventure Camp, open to participants ages 8-18 with autism spectrum disorders, and equine therapy for the wounded warriors, according to Michael Fass of Challenge Aspen.

?We also have two sessions of Horses for Heroes,? Fass writes. ?A community-based collaboration between C.A.M.O. and Sopris Therapy Services, Horses for Heroes offers two military-based equine therapy camps in the Roaring Fork Valley. Equine Assisted Therapy is proven to be a beneficial and highly effective treatment for numerous physical, neurological, cognitive, and emotional conditions, directly addressing difficulties with movement, gross and fine motor control, perception, problem solving and expressive/receptive language.?


Resources at a Glance

Adaptive Sports Center
Crested Butte, Colorado
(970) 349-2296 (local) (866) 349-2296 (toll-free)


Challenge Aspen
PO Box 6639
Snowmass Village Mall #309
Snowmass Village, CO 81615
(970) 923-0578


Happy Trails Riding Center

Nicole Budden
CHA & NARHA Certified Riding Instructor
20560 Fernview Rd.West Linn, Oregon 97068
(503) 675-3005


National Ability Center
P.O. Box 682799 (mailing address)
Park City, Utah 84068

Bronfman Family Recreational Center and Ranch (riding center)
1000 Ability Way Park City, Utah 84060
(435) 649-3991


National Sports Center for the Disabled
Winter Park33 Parsen Rd/PO Box 1290
Winter Park, CO. 80482
(303)-316 1540


Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Int?l.)

Formerly known as the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) to promote safe and effective therapeutic horseback riding.


Certified Horsemanship Association

Promotes excellence in safety and education for the benefit of the entire horse industry by certifying instructors, accrediting equine facilities and publishing educational resources



Benefits of riding for the disabled

The benefits of riding for individuals with disabilities are many. These include, but are not limited to:


  • Improved balance
  • Improved muscle strength
  • Improvements in coordination, faster reflexes, and better motor planning
  • Stretching of tight muscles
  • Decreased muscle spasticity
  • Increased range of motion of joints
  • Improved respiration, circulation, appetite and digestion
  • Sensory integration
  • Improved visual/spatial perception


  • Improved reading and math skills
  • Improved sequencing, patterning and motor planning skills
  • Improved hand-eye coordination
  • Differentiation of sensory stimuli


  • Practice of appropriate social behavior
  • Enjoyment of interaction with others and the social experience
  • Development of respect and love for animals and people


  • A general sense of well-being
  • Improved self-confidence
  • Increased interest in the outside world
  • Increased interest in one?s own life
  • Improved risk-taking abilities
  • Development of patience
  • Emotional control and self-discipline
  • Sense of normality
  • Expansion of the locus of control

Courtesy of the National Ability Center

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