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PetGazette - Post

  • Shannon Knapp

How Horses Help Teach People

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

Equine-Assisted Practices and Therapeutic Horsemanship

The field Therapeutic Horsemanship wouldn’t exist without Natural Horsemanship in our culture. Equine-assisted work in all its forms wouldn’t exist if we still used horses as machinery. So much would be different.

This is not to say horses haven’t been therapeutic for people even back in the day when horses were used for plowing fields, transportation, and welfare. But people of those times likely would have scoffed at any attempts to make this therapeutic benefit tangible and credible.

Like Natural Horsemanship, equine-assisted practice, as an activity, has deep roots. References from as early as 600 B.C. speak of early Greeks utilizing horses not only for people with disabilities, but for general health and well-being. Jump forward to the 1800s, where European physicians found horseback riding helpful in the treatment of certain neurological conditions to improve balance, posture, and strength.Early Greeks used horses for general health Click To Tweet

Physicians used riding therapy during a Scandinavian outbreak of poliomyelitis (a kind of polio) in 1946. In a famous case from that time, horsewoman Liz Hartel used daily riding sessions to recover from the disease, and later went on to win a silver medal in Dressage in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. Her story brought attention to horseback riding for the disabled, and she later partnered with physical therapist Ulla Harpoth to bring equine therapy to patients.

Therapeutic riding began in the U.S. and Canada in the 1960s; in 1969, the North American Riding for the Handicapped (NARHA) formed in the U.S. Therapeutic riding practitioners were able to catalogue a range of beneficial aspects, including physical, psychological, social, and educational outcomes. These included improved balance and strength, decreased spasticity and increased coordination, emotional control and self-discipline, and improved hand-eye coordination. Hippotherapy evolved as a separate focus in therapeutic riding, with a direct application toward achieving functional outcomes as part of a physical, speech, and occupational therapy treatment strategy under the supervision of a professional therapist. Hippotherapy is also often viewed as another form of rehabilitation.Teaching horses teaches people. Click To Tweet

In Therapeutic Horsemanship (Therapeutic Riding), the focus is instruction to ride, with a goal towards independent riding, along with all the intangible benefits. In Equine Assisted Practice (EAP) and Equine Assisted Learning (EAL), the end goal is not about horsemanship or instruction to ride or competence to ride. To learn more about the history of Therapeutic Riding and Hippotherapy, visit PATH website and peruse PATH’s Strides magazine. Much of the preceding information was gleaned from those two sources.

During the following decades, the beginnings of EAP for psychotherapy and learning formed. Equine-assisted activities evolved from the focus on special needs and physical and occupational therapy to include a focus on therapeutic benefits in the realm of mental health professionals. Practitioners realized the implications of expanding equine-assisted work into other areas. They started working with different populations and focused on adapting equine-assisted work to include mental health issues, complex social problems, skill building, behavioral and motivational psychotherapy aspects in their work with at-risk youth, family therapy, and personal growth therapy.

Stay tuned for more about Equine Assisted Practices and horse psychology, including donkeys and mules, in the next issue of Pet Gazette!

Shannon Knapp is Executive Director of Heart of Horse Sense and President of Horse Sense of the Carolinas, Inc., both based in Marshall, NC. For comments and inquiries, email

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