Therapeutic Horseback Riding

by Kayli Hall


IMG 3037 Sm 375x250Photo by Rocky KruegerIn the book of Esther, the King honored Mordecai by having him led through the streets on horseback.  Esther 6:11 says: So Haman got the robe and the horse. He robed Mordecai, and led him on horseback through the city streets, proclaiming before him, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!” Today, horseback riding can mean even more than honor; it can help bring healing. 

One way that horses declare the glory of God is through their amazing usefulness, especially in therapeutic horseback riding.  We will be examining therapeutic horse back riding, its benefits, and its impact on the lives of many. 


            While it is reported that the ancient Greeks understood many health benefits of therapeutic riding, it was not until the 1940-60s in Europe that therapeutic riding became an organized and recognized method of therapy for people with special needs.[1]

IMG 2541 Sm 250x375Photo by Rocky Krueger

            The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemen International (PATH Intl.), founded as the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association in 1969, now has nearly 800 centers and benefits 42,000 people with special needs in countries all over the world. [2]  In fact, there are more than fifty centers in Texas alone.[3] PATH is a member of the Federation of Riding for the Disabled International, a larger international organization founded in 1980 that has 48 member organizations in 31 countries.[4]


            Although some riding centers do charge a small fee, most are 501.3(c) non-profit organizations   which can often offer riding scholarships thanks to the funding of generous donors. [5]


  In therapeutic riding lessons, a qualified and experienced instructor works with the rider.  Often to accommodate the safety and needs of the student, special or adapted riding equipment is used.  The right therapy horse must be matched to the rider’s requirements.  When considering the horse’s suitability for a rider, instructors consider the horse’s length of stride, height, body width, temperament and training in order to provide the rider the most productive stimulation and safe therapeutic ride.  


Through PATH Intl., several equine therapeutic programs exist.  For example, one program provides equine assisted therapeutic activities; another specializes in mental health therapy; and one program offers hippotherapy using the horse under the direction of a licensed therapist.   PATH Intl. offers a special program to veterans called Horses for Heroes.  One pilot therapeutic riding center provides equine assisted therapeutic activities to soldiers who were wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  There were four sessions, over three weeks, in which the soldiers were taught riding skills, such as barrel racing. [6]  


 Now that we have examined what therapeutic horseback riding is and programs that are available, let’s take a look at the benefits horseback riding provides. 


The horse’s motion moves the rider in a way similar to the human walk, thus improving flexibility, balance, posture and strength. [7]  For those with cognitive challenges, communication and speech often improves because the rider learns to communicate with the horse and the instructor.  Learning the skills of controlling and riding a horse with a balanced seat, builds a rider’s confidence and offers a rewarding feeling of accomplishment. For those with physical disabilities, horseback riding provides an activity they can do without requiring a wheelchair or a cane.  This leads to an increased sense of independence and ability. Additionally, developing a relationship with the horse helps riders to become more trusting and confident. [8]


Several specific disabilities can be improved by therapeutic riding, including autism, Multiple Sclerosis and muscular dystrophy.  Children with Autism who participate in horseback riding are able to concentrate better and are less easily distracted. [9] Even more importantly, horseback riding has been shown to help those with Autism to improve speaking ability. [10]  For those with Multiple Sclerosis, riding can improve mobility, balance, and coordination. [11]  Horseback riding can help slow muscular dystrophy, as well as improve muscle control, strength, and coordination. [12] For people who have Cerebral Palsy, riding can improve the range of motion, flexibility, and posture. [13] Those who have Down Syndrome benefit through increased socialization skills, eye-hand coordination, and a healthy self image. [14] Other disabilities that can be improved by therapeutic riding include emotional disabilities, brain injuries, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder and many other special challenges. 

IMG 2347 Sm 375x250Photo by Rocky Krueger

  Having examined the benefits of horseback riding, let’s consider how these benefits have changed the lives of those involved in these programs.


            Many people have experienced the benefits of therapeutic riding.  Lori Hall, a rider with Multiple Sclerosis, stated that riding helps her to overcome day-to-day challenges.IMG 3433 Sm 250x375Photo by Rocky Krueger[15]  A 10-year old girl with Cerebral Palsy experienced improvements in posture from riding, and this worked more effectively than any of the other forms of therapy she had tried. [16]  For Teddy Sargent, a child with Autism, it is said that riding improved his verbal skills and self-esteem. [17]  Craig Coggins, a former Marine soldier wounded in Iraq, found that horseback riding brought relief from pain, improved his self-esteem, and assisted in transforming his outlook on life. [18]  Kelly Schafer, a retired Air Force Captain, who was unable to control his arms or legs before he started riding, experienced an increased ability to walk. [19]  Rene Suarez, a Navy veteran involved in horseback riding, no longer has to use a cane to walk.[20]


All these success stories show us that horses can be used for amazing things. This points back to our Creator.  Isaiah 42:5 declares: “This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it”. 


          It is amazing that horses can be used to provide so many benefits and to change so many lives.  This brings glory to God, for His creation has a purpose and can make a difference in peoples’ lives.  Romans 1:20 says: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Horses, as part of God’s creation have revealed God’s love and mercy, through their positive impact on the lives of His people.

Scriptures taken from the New International Version

[1]STRIDES Therapeutic Riding, “Riding Through History” <>, January 21, 2012

[2] Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemen International. What is PATH Intl.? <> December 24, 2011.

[3] Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemen International. Find a Center. <> December 24, 2011.

[4] Federation of Riding for the Disabled International. Current Members. <> December 27, 2011.

[7] Joann Benjamin. Introduction to Hippotherapy. American Hippotherapy Association. Summer 2000. <> December 30, 2011.

[9] Margaret M. Bass, Catherine A. Duchown, Maria M. Llabre. The Effect of Therapeutic Horseback Riding on Social Functioning in Children with Autism. April 7, 2009. <> December 26, 2011

[10] Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemen International. EAAT Benefits. <> December 29, 2011

[11] Strides Magazine. Multiple Sclerosis and Therapeutic Riding. April 1997. <> December 28, 2011

[12] See ref. 9

[13] Strides Magazine. Cerebral Palsy and Therapeutic Riding. October 1995. <> December 28, 2011

[14] See ref. 9

[15] Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemen International. Learn About EAAT. <> December 27, 2011

[17] Equine Therapy Programs. Mom and Son Find Help through Therapeutic Riding. <> December 28, 2011

[18] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Vanguard. High in the Saddle. March/April 2010. <> December 28, 2011

[19] See ref. 17

[20] See ref. 17