Horses are fantastic creatures that have been our companions almost as long as humans have been around. In recent years, equine therapy or hippotherapy has seen an increase in popularity as more people come to realize the mental and health benefits derived from riding or caring for horses.
Horses are naturally intuitive and sensitive animals capable of sensing their riders’ moods and mirroring their behavior. This is what makes them such excellent therapeutic animals. Therapeutic horse riding has been recognized as beneficial in helping individuals suffering from various mental, physical and emotional health issues to grow and heal. This includes those with PTSD, autism, cerebral palsy, among others.
Over the years, therapeutic horse riding has evolved and given rise to different forms of equine therapy. But where and how did it all begin?
The Origins of Equine Therapy (1569)
While it’s not entirely clear when therapeutic riding became a specialized field, ancient Greek writings from around 460 BC document the benefits of horseback riding in the writings of Hippocrates. He wrote a chapter on “Natural Exercise” which mentions riding being healthy. Merkurialis of Italy and Tissot of France also made references to the physical benefits of horse riding in their publications in 1569 and 1780 respectively.
Fast forward to 1875 and French neurologist Charles Chassaignac added knowledge to this field after he conducted a study in which he demonstrated that therapeutic riding improved the muscle tone, balance, motion, joint movement and mood of his patients who had various neurological and physical disorders.
At the turn of the century, equestrian therapy made its way to the UK where Olive Sands used horse riding at the Oxford Hospital to help rehabilitate soldiers wounded during the First World War. From then on, British physiotherapists started looking into therapeutic riding as a means to help all types of handicaps.
Equine Therapy in 1952
However, it wasn’t until Liz Hartel, an accomplished horsewoman from Denmark, won a silver medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games that the equine and medical professions took active notice of the possibilities presented by equine therapy. Hartel had suffered some paralysis from polio and had used horse riding to strengthen her leg muscles.
Within a few years, therapeutic horse riding gained rapid recognition with the founding of the British Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) being formed in 1969. During the same year, the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA), now known as the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) was founded. It was to be an advisory body on matters of therapeutic horse riding and it provides safety guidelines, disseminates information and also trains and certifies riding instructors and accredits different riding centers in the US.
In 1999, another prominent organization in equine therapy- the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA)- was also formed. It offers certifications in either Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) or Equine Assisted Psychotherapy in the US.
Thanks to the efforts of NARHA and EAGALA, equine therapy has gained wide acceptance and various therapeutic riding programs have emerged across the country. These have helped thousands of war veterans, troubled teens and lots of others with disabilities to overcome their issues and lead better lives.