Therapeutic horseback riding is a very powerful tool. Normal movement is needed for learning as well as improving physical function. The dimensional movement of the horse provides stimulation to the rider that normalizes both physical and mental activity. It helps hyperactive children calm and center themselves. Riding provides gait training for non-ambulatory individuals as well. Autistic children appear to have better concentration and focus when riding.
In 1875, the first study was done to evaluate the value of riding as a therapy tool. The study was done by French physician Cassaign, who concluded that the horse was a useful tool in the treatment of individuals with neurological disorders. This form of treatment helped to improve posture, balance, joint movement and provided psychological improvements.
During World War I, England started using horses for therapy for their wounded soldiers at Oxford Hospital. After this, the British started researching to see if other types of disabilities would benefit from this great therapy tool. By 1969, Britain had developed an organization called the British Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).
In Scandinavia, therapeutic riding was first introduced after an outbreak of the polio virus in 1946. Liz Hartel, a horsewoman who was also affected by polio, helped draw attention to riding for the disabled by winning an Olympic Silver Medal in Dressage at the 1952 Olympic Games. After this win, she continued on with the help of a physical therapist, Ulla Harpoth, to use horses as a treatment tool for their patients.
In the United States, riding for the disabled was originally started as a form of recreation and motivation for education. The organization, North American Riding for the Handicap Association (NARHA), was developed in 1969 along with the Cheff Center in Michigan, which is the oldest center dedicated to riding for individuals with disabilities. NARHA provides standards and guidelines for therapeutic riding centers in the U.S. and its neighboring countries. Along with setting standards and guidelines for centers NARHA also certifies instructors, accredits riding centers and offers low cost insurance to member centers.
Today, horses help individuals with disabilities demonstrate their great riding skills in local, national, and international competitions. Hippotherapy is also becoming a recognized treatment with most physical, occupational and speech therapies. In the area of mental health, the horse has become a popular form of treatment. Many medical doctors, psychiatrists, physical and occupational therapists, speech therapists and teachers refer individuals to therapeutic riding centers.