There are many categories that fall under the term ‘Therapeutic Riding’, such as Sport, Education and Medicine. Then there is Hippotherapy which is a direct medical treatment incorporating the body and movement of the horse to acquire a benefit. Hippotherapy is usually used for students with severe physical disabilities and needs a professional to make and organize the class plan. Many students with severe movement impairment need the use of a back rider who sits behind the student to help keep them in the correct position and to help with the exercises desired by the physiotherapist. The back rider must be a competent rider and understand the disabilities of each student. Hippotherapy is often performed bareback or with a sheepskin to protect against rubbing which can be a big problem for many disabilities and if not done properly can aggravate the problem and could even lead to amputation. The benefits of any kind of therapeutic riding are many, from improved circulation, the massage of atrophied limbs to massage of internal organs, a sense of caring for another being when you are used to always being the cared for, the freedom of movement and, finally, the elegance of the gait which is impossible to achieve by traditional therapies on the ground. Almost all students achieve a feeling of well-being and a joy in looking down at their surroundings for once rather than their usual ‘up at everything’. They also get the chance to cover terrain that is normally off limits to them. Just the action of sitting on a horse at a walk without doing any specific exercise can provide many of these advantages.
In hippotherapy, unlike the other forms of therapeutic riding, the rider never learns to ride or indeed ever takes control of the horse. The horse emulates the walking movement of the human gait and sends this message to the appropriate part of the rider’s brain so it is clearly important to have a horse with a good stride and in balance. The horse must also be calm and prepared for unusual noises and movements that the disabled person is likely to make. The preparation and exercise of the horse is one of the most important parts of any therapeutic riding whether it be sport or hippotherapy. Everything that will be done during a class must be practiced by the volunteers first, and practiced many times, until the horse is used to the movements and the objects used for the class such as toys, balls, rings and cups.
Before any type of therapeutic riding begins it is important to have a Doctor’s certificate to make sure there are no contraindications. The staff must be well prepared and have regular training sessions which help to prepare the horse as well. The equipment must be clean and sterilized as most disabled people are much more prone to infection. The sessions are usually boring to the horse as it is led around in circles and figure-eights with a leader and side-walkers and will stop at a stand for long periods. Therefore a good ride in the countryside or a good work-out prior to the session is very important so that the horse is calm.
Exercises include things such as reaching for the ears, lying down either frontwards or backwards in different positions depending on the desired effect, and face down hanging over the horse, which is used at the end of almost every lesson to help clear the lungs of the fluid which accumulates in people wheelchair bound.
Therapeutic riding has been practiced since the end if the First World War when it was used to help rehabilitate amputees. Many disabled people have gone on to competitions and even the Olympics. RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) is the most common type of therapeutic riding and is practiced all over the world and almost anyone can participate and achieve great benefits. If you are interested in RDA, the Diamond Centre in England is the main centre for training courses. For information on worldwide therapeutic riding centres the FRDI in Australia (www.frdi.net) has a complete listing of all qualified centres and NARAH in the USA offers university and private course in all of the aspects of therapeutic riding including hippotherapy. Therapeutic riding is relatively new in Spain but is becoming increasingly popular, but please check with an official association, either national or international, before participating because there are a lot of cowboys out there who can do a lot of damage.
ANIMO ran in Southern Spain for fourteen years with no charge to students and offered international conferences and courses. All staff including the doctor and physiotherapist plus 40 some odd volunteers worked free of charge. We were financed by fund-raisers and support from The Entertainer Newspaper. Animo started way before its time and has now had to stop practical operations due to lack of funding and official support, but still continues to give courses and information to groups trying to set up.
Barbara Napier, President of ANIMO