Some of the key benefits of horse riding activities for people with a disability are:
Before one can be taught to read it is necessary to recognise differences in shapes, sizes and even colours. These can be easily taught on horseback as part of the games and activities. There is less resistance to learning when it is part of a riding lesson. Through the use of signs placed around the arena, letters can be taught and reading of individual words by word recognition can be learnt. Games involving signs for 'exit;', 'danger', 'stop' etc, help to teach important life skills involving reading.
Counting is taught by counting the horse's footsteps, objects around the arena or even the horse’s ears and legs. Number concepts are gained as the rider compares the number of legs on their horses to their own legs. Addition or subtraction is taught through games throwing numbered foam dice, adding or subtracting the numbers and because the concepts are taught through games, resistance to learning is decreased.
Sequencing, patterning and motor planning
Something as simple as holding a pencil requires a great deal of motor planning. Knowing which comes first in a series of events is an important part of most activities. These and other similar skills are taught on horseback through the use of obstacle courses, pole bending, team drills and many other games and activities.
Improved eye hand coordination
Eye/hand coordination is necessary for such skills as writing. These skills are practiced in the act of riding the horse as well as in various activities and exercises.
Visual spatial perception
This includes our awareness of form and space and our understanding relationships between forms in our environment. Included in this are directionality (knowing right from left); space perception (which allow us to differentiate between items similar in shape but spatially different - eg 'h' versus 'b'); form perception of depth (picking an object out from its background); and visual sequential memory (such as remembering symbols in a particular pattern or sequence). Both reading and maths concepts involve spatial perception. Visual spatial perception improves as a natural result of control of the horse. Additional exercises are done on the horse to increase ability in this area.
The rider learns to differentiate significant from less significant stimuli in the environment. An improvement in this area occurs as the rider learns to attend to their horse and those things that may influence the horse as opposed to attending to the environment in general.
As the horse moves, the rider is constantly thrown off balance, requiring the rider's muscles to contract and relax in an attempt to re-balance. This exercising is similar to physiotherapy, reaching the deep muscles, but making the therapy more enjoyable and even fun! The three dimensional rhythmic movement of the horse is similar to the motion of walking, teaching rhythmical patterns to the muscles of the legs and trunk. By placing the rider in different positions on the horse (therapeutic riding), we can work different sets of muscles. Stopping and starting the horse, changing speed and changing direction increases the benefits.
Muscles are strengthened by the increased use involved in riding. Even though riding is exercise, it is perceived as enjoyment, and therefore the rider has increased tolerance and motivation to lengthen the period of exercise.
Improved coordination, faster reflexes and better motor planning
Riding a horse requires a great deal of coordination to get the desired response from the horse. Since the horse provides instant feedback to every action of the rider, it is easy to know when you have given the correct cue. Repetition of the patterned movements required in controlling a horse quickens the reflexes and aids motor planning.
Stretching tight or spastic muscles
Sitting on a horse requires stretching of the adductor muscles of the thighs. This is accomplished by pre-stretching prior to mounting the horse, starting the rider on a narrow horse and gradually working to wider and wider horses. Gravity helps to stretch the calf muscles as the rider sits on the horse without stirrups. Riding with stirrups helps to stretch the Achilles tendon. Stomach and back muscles are stretched as the rider is encouraged to maintain an upright position against the movement of the horse. Arm and hand muscles are stretched as part of the routine exercises on the horse and by the act of holding the reins.
Spasticity is reduced by the rhythmic motion and warmth of the horse and may aid in relaxation, especially of the legs. Sitting astride the horse helps to break the extensor spasms of the lower limbs. Holding the reins helps to break the flexor spasm patterns of the upper limbs. Fatigue helps to decrease spasticity by producing relaxation.
Increased range of movement at the joints
As spasticity is reduced, range of motion increases. Range of motion is also improved by the act of mounting and dismounting, grooming and exercises during the lesson.
Reduction of the abnormal movement patterns
If spasticity is reduced, range of movement increases. Range of movement is also improved by the act of mounting and dismounting, grooming and exercises during the lesson.
Improved respiration and circulation
Although riding is not normally considered a cardiovascular exercise, trotting and cantering do increase both respiration and circulation.
Improved appetite and digestion
Like all forms of exercise, riding stimulates the appetite. The digestive tract is also stimulated, increasing the efficiency of the digestion.
Riding stimulates the tactile senses, both through touch and environmental stimuli. The vestibular system is also stimulated by the movement of the horse. The many sounds of an outdoor, farm situation help to involve the auditory system. All of these senses work together and are integrated in the act of riding. In addition, proprioceptors (receptors that give information from our muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints) are activated, resulting in improved proprioception.
A general sense of well being. Exercise in the fresh air, away from school, hospitals or therapy rooms help to promote a sense of well being.
Increased interest on one's own life
The excitement of riding and the experiences involved stimulate the rider to speak and communicate about it.
Improved self confidence
Confidence is gained by mastering a skill normally performed by able bodied people. The ability to control an animal much larger and stronger than oneself is a great confidence builder. Participating in events such as shows, games days and riding displays add to the sense of achievement.
Emotional control and self-discipline
The rider quickly learns self control as they realise the potential consequences of inappropriate behavior around horses.
Increased interest in the outside world
For those confined by a disability the world can tend to shrink in size. Riding increases interest in what is happening around the rider, as the rider explores the world from horseback. Even exercising becomes interesting when done on the back of a horse.
Sense of achievement
By being able to master a skill considered difficult for others, the rider gains a feeling of personal achievement.
Although riding can be a solitary activity, it is normally performed in groups. Riders share a common love of horses and a common experience of riding - a good foundation on which to build a friendship.
Development of respect and a love for animals
Horses require a great deal of care and attention. Riders find themselves bonding with the horse that they ride as they learn to care for and trust them. They learn to put the horse first.
The variety of experiences involved in riding are endless. From tacking up and grooming to trail riding, from attending horse shows to learning the parts of the horse, the rider is constantly experiencing and growing. The horse also provides the rider with the ability to go places perhaps otherwise inaccessible, due to their disability.
There is no doubt that riding a horse is fun. Riders experience excitement and pleasure every time they come for a lesson.