Search This Blog

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Horse Therapy For Troubled And Handicapped Children

Horse Therapy

In my present WIP, I have my heroine, Lucille Thoroughgood, the social worker introduced in my short story, Unexpected Blessings, con Hank Wilding (one of Banjo’s twin sons) into allowing the kids with emotional and physical handicaps come to his ranch and ride the horses with the help of the professional therapists from the orphanage. I hinted in Unexpected Blessings that these two characters had a little something going on between them and now it’s coming to fruition in this WIP with the tentative title Home For The Heart.

I started out with zero knowledge about horses or therapy with horses when I came up for the plot, so naturally, it called for research. My research became very intriguing. I found out so many things I had never realized before. Some of you may already know about this amazing therapy, but I thought I share a bit of the highlights of what I learned.

How Horse Therapy Works

Kids with emotional and behavioral have issues with trust, especially adults, that makes them difficult to help. Some of them have suffered abuse at the hands of adults, even adults who should be trustworthy and love them like their parents or foster parents. They are prone to outbursts of anger or emotional rants.  Therapy that includes gentle, nonjudgmental horses can be a great way to reach these children.

Equine assisted psychotherapy involves equine activities set up and facilitated by a licensed mental health professional, often includes the help or standby support of a horse professional. These activities are most often performed on the ground (rather than riding), and include such things as grooming, feeding, haltering and leading the horse. During the process of working with the horse, the therapist and child engage in talk therapy, processing feelings, behaviors and patterns. The ultimate goal for the child is to build skills such as personal responsibility, assertiveness, non-verbal communication, self-confidence, and self-control.

You may ask, why use horses for psychotherapy? Horses need a lot of care, and that’s a good thing because a child can put aside his or her own troubles in the immediate job of caring for the horse. Horses are large and strong, which challenges a person to overcome his fear in order to work with the animal. Horses mirror moods, too. They respond negatively to negative emotions, teaching a child that his behavior can affect others, and make it necessary to modify behavior in order to work successfully with the animal.

Much can be learned from simply observing horse behavior. Horses can be stubborn or defiant, playful or moody. They have a variety of "herd dynamics" such as pushing, kicking, biting, squealing, grooming one another, and grazing together. In the process of describing the horse and the interactions between the horses, children can learn about themselves and their own family dynamics.
Equine assisted therapy offers kids with emotional and behavioral issues a safe environment in which to work through issues of fear, anxiety, self-doubt, and poor communication. By teaching the child how to work with and communicate with the horse, the therapist will be indirectly teaching the child how to apply these same skills in inter-personal relationships.

You may wonder how the therapy begins and how it works. One of the first aspects of helping these kids is diversion. When the young person feeds, grooms, and exercises the horses, their attention no longer goes toward themselves and their overwhelming issues and problems, but to the horse in their care. It’s a way to escape and a respite for the child’s emotions and intellect. It can help him or her feel energized and refreshed because their minds aren’t busily involved with their own problems.
Many of these kids don’t know anything about horses, and this therapy included teaching them these new skills. Learning these skills is especially good for kids who are impatient, anxious, or have low self-confidence. There is communication between the counselor and the child in learning these skills and the child is reassured that it takes time to learn and they can take their time learning them. These skills which are developed over time, give the child a safe environment in which they can make mistakes. If they have a parent or sibling who is quick to criticize and unforgiving of mistakes, horse therapy can be an excellent way to counteract those negative criticisms. The therapist can validate the child’s feelings of fear, frustration, or anxiety and teach the child that feelings are healthy while he or she develops appropriate coping mechanisms. The children gain confidence as they get better and better at caring for the horses. Easier tasks like learning to tack or walk a how can give the child an immediate sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. These accomplishments give the therapists a foundation on which to continue building confidence and trust with the children.

The therapist has the opportunity to teach by example as the child learns new skills and, if the child gets angry or frustrated, the therapist can discuss and model appropriate ways to express these emotions. Some of these children come from an environment in which people yell at each other when they’re angry. The horse therapy sessions may provide opportunities to demonstrate real-life evidence that it is possible and more productive to talk instead of yell when they disagree.

Since an equine assisted program requires planning and scheduling, it is another benefit to the therapy. Kids with emotional and behavioral issues may struggle with schedule and structure. They may want what they want when they want it. Scheduling tasks help them begin to learn the benefits of setting a time and sticking to a schedule. Caring for an animal, even for just a day, requires flexibility. Children who have difficulty when schedules are changed will learn how to become more flexible and learn realistic expectations of how to change a schedule when things don’t go as planned.
A child's responses to the horses can also provide excellent insight into the child's opinions of self and of others, especially authority figures. These kids can learn how to work through their issues of fear, anxiety, self-doubt, and poor communication in a safe environment, By teaching the child how to work with and communicate with the horse, the therapist indirectly teaches the child how to apply these same skills in inter-personal relationships.

But why use horses for psychotherapy? One reason is because horses need a lot of care. A client can put aside his or her own troubles in the immediate job of caring for the horse. Horses are large and strong, which challenges a person to overcome his fear in order to work with the animal. Horses mirror moods, too; they respond negatively to negative emotions, teaching the client that his behavior can affect others, and making it necessary to modify behavior in order to work successfully with the animal.

Much can be learned from simply observing horse behavior. Horses can be stubborn or defiant, playful or moody. They have a variety of "herd dynamics" such as pushing, kicking, biting, squealing, grooming one another, and grazing together. In the process of describing the horse and the interactions between the horses, clients can learn about themselves and their own family dynamics.
Equine assisted psychotherapy is thought to be an effective short-term therapeutic approach for both individuals and families, addressing a number of mental health problems, including behavioral issues, depression and anxiety, low self esteem, eating disorders, ADD/ADHD, post traumatic stress disorder, and relationship problems. While there is a need for research to support anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of Equine assisted psychotherapy, this type of animal assisted therapy is slowly gaining support among mental health professionals.

Horse therapy also helps children with physical disabilities. Though there are some things the children cannot do because of their physical limitations, there are many things they can do. Imagine what it must be like for children who are dependent on a wheelchair to get around because they can’t walk, having an opportunity to sit in a saddle and allow the horse to be their legs, walking with freedom. Children with physical disabilities will need assistance from therapists to get on the horse and special equipment in some cases, to be able to sit up on the horse. These activities allow the child to gain physical strength and emotional well-being. According to the articles I read and quote here: therapeutic riding was developed in the 1950s in Europe as a tool for improving the lives of individuals with physical disabilities. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) was founded in 1969 to promote and support therapeutic riding in the United States and Canada.

Individuals with almost any kind of disability, whether temporary or permanent, can benefit from therapeutic riding, which is essentially any physical interaction with horses that is guided by a person trained specifically in this type of equine-assisted therapy.

Research conducted by the American Hippotherapy Association has proven that the multidimensional movements of the horse provide a disabled rider with "the opportunity to explore, control and coordinate posture and movement".

Horseback riding gently and rhythmically moves the rider's body in a manner similar to a human gait. Riders with physical disabilities often show improvement in flexibility, balance and muscle strength.
"Positive effects from the movement of the horse can be seen in motor coordination, muscle tone, postural alignment, stiffness/flexibility and strength. Other effects on body systems can and do occur as well. Changes are often seen in the respiratory, cognitive, sensory processing, balance, affective, arousal and speech/language production functions," writes Joann Benjamin, PT, HPCS, in an article on the AHA website.

There are also undeniable, positive psychological benefits to therapeutic riding. First, there's the simple fact of just being outdoors, breathing in the fresh air, hearing the birds - versus being in a doctor's office or physical therapy center. Then there's the interaction with the horse itself. Horses are non-judgmental...they bring no prejudices to the process. Finally, there's the huge boost in self-esteem when someone who has had difficulty controlling their body or mind learns to control a 3,000-pound creature that definitely has a mind of its own.

There is widespread acceptance of hippotherapy within the medical/professional and educational communities. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) all recognize hippotherapy.

Major third party payers throughout the country reimburse for treatment that includes the movement of the horse as a treatment tool. Continuing Education Units (CEU's) are routinely granted for AHA approved and other courses taught by clinicians with recognized expertise in hippotherapy.
Articles on the use of the horse in treatment are published in peer reviewed journals such as Physical Therapy the official journal of the American Physical Therapy Association, Physical and Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, and Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, in addition to numerous articles in clinical publications.

So whether you call it hippotherapy, equine-assisted therapy or therapeutic riding, this is a powerful process that cannot be replicated mechanically. Just about anyone with any type of physical or mental disability can benefit from participating in equine-facilitated therapy and activities. 

I used some of these techniques while writing my present Wilding story and did my best in this way to advocate this remarkable therapy to help children. I hope that using this horse therapy research helps to make the story I want to tell more realistic, and something for which I can be proud.

To find a certified AHA therapist, call the American Hippotherapy Association, Inc., at 877-851-4592 or go online at

Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and the imprints of Prairie Rose Publications which includes Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media:


  1. I never knew there was so much to know about this topic. There's a program here in San Marcos for such children called AWARE--Always Wanted A Riding Experience. I need to talk with a woman named Sara--with no H--from church. She works with that....I just haven't asked her about it.
    Great post, Sarah, about a fantastic program.

    1. Celia, you must get up mighty early in the morning there in Texas.
      I never would have thought there were such extensive, world wide programs for kids and horse therapy either. It was only when I researched it for my WIP that I realized how huge the horse therapy programs were. There are also programs for adults and for military personnel with PTSD. Doing research for our stories turns out to be a tremendous learning process. I'm grateful for that.
      Thank you for coming by and commenting, Celia. You are one of the most supportive people I know. You may not know how much I appreciate you.

  2. Sarah,

    We have a facility here that gets lots of recognition. It is a wonderful tool in the treatment of people with so many challenges. I also am happy you will be including this in your next story. Best to you on that and here's to the horses and the gifts they give to us. Doris

    1. I've only ridden a horse once in my life and that experience was when I lived in Omaha, Nebraska, back in 1968-1969. I was terrified. I wish I had known then what I know now. I might have had a better experience. Long ago when I was researching for my first novel, I went with a friend of mine from work whose daughter was in to English Hunt Seat riding. I learned about horses and tack from those trips--and there were also some dicey and dangerous situations, too. I was never enticed into riding though.
      There is a national call line which I included in the blog that a person can call to find a horse therapy group in their area. They're every where. I'm glad to hear you have a great one near you. Do you ride horses?
      Thank you for dropping by and commenting, Doris.

    2. Sarah, I don't ride anymore due to back problems, but I have ridden and enjoyed it. Doris

  3. Wonderful post, Sarah. Horses are so healing... I have a special one, Cheyenne at the rescue, that I talk to when I need a lift. Equine therapy is such a blessing. Love this information.

    1. I love that you have a horse rescue, Tanya. What great satisfaction there must be in saving the lives of such magnificent animals. Are you part of an organization that rescues horses? It would seem that rescued horses would have a lot to share with a troubled kid. Have you ever thought of combining the two for horse therapy? It's probably a whole lot of work and expense.
      Thank you for coming. I always like to hear from you, Tanya.

  4. A lot of really great information, Sarah. I enjoyed the post. I have heard of this kind of therapy before. I think anything that helps people get in touch with nature, other creatures and the real world around us is great. Thanks for sharing.

    1. By accident, I did hear about horse therapy some years ago. A fellow nurse volunteered her time at a horse therapy farm once a month and invited me to come with her and help out. I wanted to do it, but at the time I was working full time and going to school full time and didn't have the time or energy to devote to it. I wish I could have done it though. If a kid can learn to trust and love a horse, I feel like they'll become more empathetic and kind to animals and people, too.
      I appreciate you dropping in and commenting, Robyn. Thank you.

  5. What a great post, Sarah! This is so interesting. I always wanted a horse when I was growing up, but my dad always said, "Where would we put him, Cheryl? The backyard is so small. He wouldn't be happy here. He couldn't run." (At that time, I didn't know about boarding horses elsewhere and keeping them there to ride!) I think horse therapy is wonderful, and kudos to you Tanya, for helping out so much at the rescue--I imagine it's therapy for you too--I know it would be for me--so relaxing and being amidst animals.

    1. LOL Cheryl, what kid doesn't ask for a horse or a pony. I didn't get one either. I had this old hand-me-down bike from my big sister and rode that thing like it was a horse. I attached my baby doll carriage to it like a stagecoach and rode them thar hills like a genuine cowgirl on a real horse. Yee Haw!
      Thanks for coming and commenting., Cheryl. I appreciate it.

  6. Sarah,

    I have a granddaughter (nearly 4 yrs old), who has been going to equine therapy for two years in Sacramento, CA. While she doesn't have a *formal/clinical* diagnosis as either Autistic or Aspergers, she does exhibit many typical characteristics on the spectrum. Equine therapy has helped her learn to communicate with the human population.

    1. Kaye, I'm so glad to hear there is some success with horse therapy. I suggested it to my nephew for his daughter who has anxiety and emotional management issues. I hope he gets her into the therapy. I believe it will really work.
      Thank you for sharing your family's success with equine therapy.

  7. My youngest was born with physical handicaps. When she was 14 she decided she needed to do something with her summers and volunteered at the local therapeutic riding center. They really weren't sure if she'd be able to handle the work, but by the end of the first year she was helping train the new volunteers. The kids adored her as well as the adults, and she ended up the go to girl for the center. They do some amazing work. Thanks for sharing your research with us.

    1. Livia, you must be so proud of your daughter for having the courage and incentive to do something some might have thought impossible. But to not only accomplish the task, but to embrace it and excel at it, well, there are no words for that.
      I wasn't certain if I wanted to take on horse therapy in a western romance. I felt a bit daunted by such an undertaking, but once I began to research horse therapy, I became more interested than ever and excited to use it in my WIP.
      I hope your daughter continues to work helping others with this therapy. It must feel so wonderful to have a child who contributes so much to make the world a better place.
      Thank you so much for coming and sharing your daughter's journey and contribution.

  8. Horse therapy, also known as Equine therapy can help challenged persons from children to adults. It can be used for physical, occupational, and emotional therapy. It is used for many different issues that people may have. Do make sure that the program you choose is an accredited or certified program. They will be sure to have the proper types of horse activities for all needs.

    Terry Roberson @ MedCare Pediatric

  9. Thank you much for the post! You have really saved my lots of time. I’ve just bookmarked this blog site. Salisbury Farms

  10. You are very welcome, Jenny. I hope your search proves successful for you. I feel so strongly that animals can help us to heal and love ourselves.
    Thank you so much for visiting my post.