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Therapeutic Riding

Written by Arlene Reith


It was the winter of 1991 when we donated our beautiful, black, Arabian, mare, Limelite, to Rainbow Wishes, a therapeutic riding program for the mentally and physically challenged. Limelite was evaluated for this program and was approved for the training that followed. It was during this time when my husband Tom and I realized how wonderful this program was, not only for the benefits of donating Limelite, but the potential it had for helping our son Michael.

    Michael, our fourth adopted child, was born hydrocephalic. After Michaelís shunt implant, he came home at the age of two months at which time we were advised by the doctors that we were to expect him to have neurological impairment, but the areas of his impairment were unknown at this time. Tom and I began to pray for Michael from the moment we received the call from Social Services and by the time Michael came home we believed God for miracles in his development. We praise the Lord for his faithfulness! Michaelís development is very close to age appropriate with some learning disabilities and he has never experienced a shunt malfunction, praise God! However, although Michael had received early intervention services (OT, PT, SE) since he was three months old, at the age of three years old, he was still walking only on his toes. Tipping and falling became an everyday practice and everything the physical therapist tried and prescribed was without any success. It was this time that Tom and I were introduced to the therapeutic riding program. We believed that it may be able to help Michael since the feet were placed in the stirrups in a "heel down" position encouraging the rider to stretch the back of the leg to maintain this posture for balance. Michael became a student at Rainbow Wishes and the rest is history. Michael participated in this program for nearly two years and today walks normally (heel to toe), loves riding and horses, and has become a candidate for able-bodied lessons!

     When Tom and I were asked to serve on the Board of Directors for this program, we immediately accepted. I became a parent advocate for therapeutic riding for the mentally, physically and emotionally challenged. During this time I was introduced to NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association), a non-profit organization headquartered in Denver, that exists for individuals with disabilities. The three primary fields of therapeutic riding are sport, education and medicine.

     In the field of medicine, equine activities are utilized as form of direct medical treatment. One specific method is called hippotherapy ("hippos" meaning horse in Greek). It literally means "treatment with the help of the horse". Although many physical therapists are sold on the benefits of horse riding, hippotherapy remains largely unknown.

     Even some physical therapists have never heard of it. But those who know about hippotherapy applaud its benefits. Physical therapists and horse trainers say that a horseís movements match the gait of a humanís more closely than any other creatureís, which helps uniquely in improving coordination, motor skills, posture and balance. The emotional lift riding provides is immeasurable. While riding, the riderís center of gravity is continually displaced with each step the horse takes, causing the rider to accommodate to these changes with muscular activity and control to remain centered on the mount. Clients can benefit from improvement in dynamic posture and balance as well as improvement in sensory processing and functional mobility. Psychological functions such as improved confidence appear to result from equestrian therapy. Young people with disorders who participate in therapeutic riding show better range of hip and knee motion, improved sitting balance and ambulatory capacities. They have a more positive and cooperative attitude toward their regular physical therapy.

     One parent writes to NARHA about her daughter Paige, born with the severest form of spina bifida, myelomeningocele, "Paige has impaired movement and paralysis in both feet. Before enrolling in a therapeutic riding program, her weak muscles and lack of control limited her every movement. But, the accomplishments Paige received through planned equine activities opened the doors never considered possible. Her physical accomplishments include improvement in balance, muscle strength, circulation, coordination and specific motor skills. Therapeutic riding has also increased Paigeís awareness of many muscles and their uses. This is demonstrated nightly. She would often fall out of bed at night, but she is now able to catch herself and prevent falling. Along with physical accomplishments, Paige has gained a sense of pride and independence. Her smile while she is riding and the excitement she generates when sharing her experiences can easily be identified as her testimony for the successfulness of therapeutic riding."

     There are other letters to NARHA regarding the success stories of those who benefited form therapeutic riding. Letters from parents of children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and brain-injuries are to name only a few.

    A horseback riding program can be designed to be specifically therapeutic, with its primary objective being amelioration of the riderís disability. Physical therapists have been educated to organize, supervise, and carry out plans to improve disabilities in many areas, and Hippotherapy is an extension of their traditional therapeutic programs. The physical therapist and the riding instructor share the responsibility for the riding program. They must be knowledgeable of one anotherís roles and must work together to be sure that the riders are matched to the animals they are best suited for, as well as to plan supervision and to ensure their ridersí safety. The physical therapist must evaluate each patient in the riding program to assess individual needs and should adapt the exercises and riding activities to meet those needs through a series of established goals. In addition to the physical therapist, there is a riding instructor, usually two assistants to lead the horse. In some programs there may also be an occupational therapist present.

     Today, "horseback riding for the disabled" is becoming a commonly used phrase, both in the equestrian world and in the fields of medicine, education, and psychology. In essence, the phrase infers that there is an area of horseback riding that deals with the disabled, as a population. The word "disabled", in and of itself, is a large, encompassing word that includes a myriad of physical, mental and emotional disabilities.

     There are several other methods where the horse is being used for therapeutic purposes. Recently, the Fran Joswick Center in San Juan Capistrano, CA expanded its program to include a new component called equine facilitated therapy (EFT). EFT is different than therapeutic riding because it uses the horse as the modality for therapy without the incorporation of riding skill instruction. The motion of the horse provides many benefits, including mobilization of the pelvis and facilitation of balance and coordination. At Winslow Therapeutic Riding Unlimited in Warwick, N.Y., another approach for hippotherapy is Neuro-Development Treatment (NDT) and Sensory Integration (SI). NDT focuses on postural control, equilibrium reaction and their impact on functional motor skill, while SIís emphasis is on sensory aspects and their effect on attention, motivation and socio-emotional well being. Recently Winslow has introduced the R.E.A.C.C.H. (Riding Education of Autistic and Communication Handicapped Children) program with much success.

Therapeutic riding is continuing to expand around the country. NARHA has more than 525 operating centers in 48 states and Canada. You can find out more about therapeutic riding and the NARHA certified riding center nearest your home by contacting:


NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, Inc.)

P.O. Box 33150

Denver, Colorado 80233



The following are some of the finest therapeutic riding and training centers that helped contribute much of the information in this article.


Winslow Therapeutic Riding Unlimited, Inc.

340 A South Rt. 94

Warwick, N.Y. 10990

(914) 986-6686


Fran Joswick Therapeutic Riding Center

Tracy Stotz-executive director

P.O. Box 490

San Juan Capistrano, CA. 92693


Pegasus Therapeutic Riding, Inc.

P.O. Box 2053

Darien, CT. 06820-0053

(203) 356-9504


High Hopes Therapeutic Riding Inc.

P.O. Box 254

Old Lyme, CT. 06371

(860) 434-1974


Pal-O-Mine Equestrian, Inc.

Lisa Gatti-Director

136 Bay Avenue

Huntington Bay, New York 11473

(516) 427-7743


I am especially grateful to all of the above riding centers for their help. But most of all I give all the praise and glory to our Lord Jesus who continues to perform His Word and is faithful to His promises. "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

Phillipians 4:13. Michael is a testimony of our faith and we thank the Lord for using Limelite as an instrument in Michaelís healing, both physically and emotionally. Not only did He create an animal as beautiful and powerful as the horse to serve man in many ways, both for work and enjoyment, but He also uses this beautiful animal in His healing. Thank you, Jesus.

Since we adopted Michael (who is now nine years old), we have adopted four more children. Our last two children were born with Down syndrome. Gabriel is three years old and Sarah is one year old. We are looking forward to working with them in a therapeutic riding program with Limelite!