The Magical Healing Properties of Horses   By   Trish Jackson

child on horse

Whether you are a horse lover or not, you cannot help being in awe of the amazing healing power of horses. From the time of the ancient Greeks, people have recognized the magical curative capabilities of equine therapy, not only for physical disabilities, but also emotional, social, cognitive, and behavioral difficulties, and even to improve speech and educational skills for both adults and children.

Hippotherapy—from the Greek ‘hippo’ meaning horse, is based on the premise of a horse’s rhythmic, repetitive movements, which can help improve muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination, strength, flexibility and cognitive skills. On top of this, the movements also generate responses in the patient that are similar to, and essential for walking.

Therapeutic Horseback Riding, or Therapeutic Riding (TR), Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), and Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) are other recognized types of horse therapy. In addition to horseback riding, participants groom and care for the horses and learn about trust and relationships, and responsibility. This is particularly beneficial for troubled youths, with problems like attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders, abuse issues, depression, anxiety, and relationship and communication problems. Their interaction with the horses helps reduce stress levels and anxiety, and encourages increased feelings of self-esteem and patience. Grooming and caring for horses can also help military personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder or other emotional challenges.

You might think this in itself is mind-boggling, but there are more benefits. Adjusting to and accommodating for the horse’s movements stimulates the inner ear, which controls all voluntary movement of the body, including speech, and also increases sensorimotor integration—the nervous system’s ability to create involuntary or automatic movement.

As just one example, autistic children prefer to turn left because they can use their most developed brain hemisphere, the right hemisphere. Right turns on the horse can actually help restart the development of the left brain.

Physical and developmental conditions most often treated are:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Down’s syndrome
  • Developmental delay
  • Autism
  • Stroke
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Spina bifida
  • Convulsive disorders
  • Amputation
  • Muscular dystrophy

Equine therapists must undergo special training and pass stringent exams. They address various therapeutic goals by having patients turn in circles, change direction repeatedly, or ride in different positions: sitting or lying forwards, backwards or sideways; standing in the stirrups; and riding without holding. In addition, patients may be asked to stretch, reach or play games — such as catch — while on the horse.

The horses used are hand-picked for their gentle nature, and are safe and well-trained.

I have personally witnessed a child who stopped speaking for two years after his father was murdered, who learned to speak again when he was taken for regular visits to a horse stable. It wasn’t a recognized therapy center and he didn’t even ride the horses. The simple pleasure of stroking and being around them was all he needed.

I am also about to follow the journey of my friend Anita’s autistic son, Kevin. He is 10 years old and although his parents have spent thousands of dollars on therapy, he has shown no improvement and remains locked inside his private world, a prisoner of his own mind. In desperation, Kevin’s parents are going to start him on equine therapy, even though as a family, they have never owned pets or animals, and Kevin has never touched a horse. I’ll be monitoring Kevin’s progress on my own blog, and I encourage anyone who has an autistic child or relative to join me.

I want to believe equine therapy will unlock Kevin’s mind, but only time will tell.

Equine therapy is still in its infancy in the US, and it seems to have no boundaries. I look forward to the discovery of more of the healing power of horses.

Trish Jackson writes emotive romantic suspense focusing on small towns, country folk and their animals.

Soul-stirring, passionate, thrilling – and fun. 

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10 thoughts on “The Magical Healing Properties of Horses   By   Trish Jackson

  1. Salvatore Buttaci

    What an enlightening article! Hay may be for horses, but horses offer so many health benefits to their riders that Trish Jackson may have provided an answer to the question “Why were horses ridden all these centuries and not some other animal?”

  2. Martha Love

    Trish, I am so happy you have written this wonderful piece on Equine Therapy. I first learned about Equine Therapy only a few years ago from a psychology professor at Sonoma State University where I attended graduate school, Eleanor Criswell Hanna, Ed.D., the originator of Equine Hanna Somatics. Her form of therapy is actually for the horse and handler, which is also part of the therapy process for humans relating to horses. I did not go through the courses myself but what I understood was that one of the major important characteristics of a horse that makes them such wonderful animals for therapy is that they give you immediate feedback about your own actions and body language through mirroring. For instance, if you are nervous, the horse will mirror to you this same feeling. It is through the Mirroring that one learns in Equine Therapy to act and react appropriately, and build trust and confidence and decrease isolation.

  3. Kenneth Weene

    As a child I learned to ride and loved it. Married a woman who loved horses, and we had one for many years. Often the horse lived in a pricier zip code than we did, but the joy those animals brought to my wife was worth it. Over the years as a psychologist working with kids, I took many children to ride — usually in groups. Sure they loved it, but more important it helped them to feel in control and capable. Animals can offer wonderful growth and therapeutic experiences, be it horses, dogs, cats, or other creatures we don’t necessarily think of as pets.

  4. Rosemary "Mamie" Adkins

    Trish what a wonderful post today. I never gave it much thought that Equine Therapy could mean so much but this story has triggered a happy memory for me as a child and there are only a handful I care to think about. I have thought about our horse on rare occasions but today you have given me a great sense of well being.

    As a young child , we had a horse and her name was Baby Doll. It was my job to care for her so my brother could ride and be happy but I was lucky one summer and was allowed to ride -what a thrill. Parades with the excitement of the activities-what a feeling to a child suffering abuse. I could sit tall in my saddle and feel loved and important.

    Yes indeed, you have brought a most interesting article here and I hope the child you are following finds his world as I did even if just for a short time.


  5. Cynthia B Ainsworthe

    Such a wonderful article by Trish. The power of horses, even that of pets is a blessing to us mere humans. Animals have always been in my life and enriched my existence. Trish you expressed the essence of the bond between gentle creatures and we who take them into our hearts.

  6. Micki Peluso

    This is a most informative post, Trish. I’ve heard of horse therapy but never to this extent. I once rode an elephant as a five year old child in Texas and I can remember the way it felt to this day. It was soothing with the gentle swaying of the huge animal from side to side. I loved horses all my life but rarely got to ride them. I think most animals have healing within them. My cat always knows exactly where I am in pain and will insist upon laying on that place and purring. That sound is said to be the way a feline heals itself and others.

    To me and many others, I’m sure, there is something special about dogs and horses that bonds so well with humans. I hope in some way we do the same for them. I pray this horse therapy works for your friend’s son.

  7. Linda Hales

    Kudos for such an enlightening lesson on equine therapy Trish! I will most assuredly point my niece in this direction so that she learns of this. Her son is autistic and is an extremely sensitive child who communicates with animals on a level only he understands. As a savant, he seems to have a photographic memory. He is a talented child artist who remembers what he has seen in vivid detail, both still and animal imagery. Thanks for a fascinating introduction to this unique therapy.


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