Horse power: the benefits of equine therapy

A Dublin conference will hear how interaction with horses can help people with a variety of problems

What is it about horses that make them such amenable creatures to work with?

More than 350 people from Europe, North and South America, South Africa, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand will be in the RDS, Ballsbridge, Dublin from June 25th-29th for the 16th International Congress of Equine Facilitated Programmes.

Physiotherapists, psychotherapists, speech and language therapists and others will present studies and reports on how interaction with horses can benefit children and adults with physical, sensory, psycho-social and emotional-behavioural problems. This is the first time the congress, which is held every three years, will take place in Ireland.

"Horses have a three-dimensional movement," explains Jill Carey, conference organiser and director of Festina Lente, the Co Wicklow centre for therapeutic riding and equine-assisted learning. "They move backwards and forwards. They move from side to side and they have a pelvic-rotation movement. Up to 97 per cent of their walk imitates the human gait."


Carey explains that riding a horse improves upper-body control and posture. “So, even if you don’t want to, the horse is drawing you into this movement.”

The multi-sensory experience of riding a horse stimulates physical and emotional systems in the body. And children on the autistic spectrum find the wave-like movement of trotting and cantering on a horse has a soothing effect.

Our role is to encourage the person to observe what a horse is doing to see how their behaviour is impacting the horse. If you become quieter, the horse will immediately become quieter

However, it’s not just the physical experience of riding a horse that offers potential benefit. Carey explains that, “because horses are prey animals, their capacity to stay in the present moment is heightened compared to that of predators. They are constantly giving people feedback on their interaction which offers individuals a great opportunity to self-regulate”.

Aggressive behaviour

So, for example, a horse can become nervous and agitated if faced with aggressive behaviour. “Our role is to encourage the person to observe what a horse is doing to see how their behaviour is impacting the horse. If you become quieter, the horse will immediately become quieter.”

And, as well as these specific equine-assisted interventions, the horse can also act as a kind of buffer or social mediator in a therapeutic relationship. “It’s easier for people to talk if a horse is there with you. And, because a lot of people project their feelings by saying things like ‘the horse looks sad or that horse is bullying another one’, you can get into their thinking that way,” says Carey.

At the Horses in Education and Therapy International Congress in Dublin, therapists working with people with autism, addictions, abuse, traumatic brain injury, low back pain, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, physical or intellectual disabilities will speak about their work.

Take for example the presentation by Dr Maggie Broom on how equine therapy can address physical, social and emotional issues in people on the autism spectrum disorder. Dr Broom says when the therapist can mix mounted and un-mounted work, there is greater benefit across the domains of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, psychotherapy, emotional regulation and social skills development.

Jemina Pietilä from the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland, will talk about the impact working with horses has on students' empathic behaviour. In her research, she found this form of experiential learning improved participants' ability to take other students into consideration and improved the overall sense of cohesion in the class.

Learning opportunity

Learning how to lead horses without a lead rope, without shouting at them and without bribing them with food presents another great learning opportunity. At the conference, researchers from the United States will talk about how they use freely roaming horses in therapy for clients with addiction and behaviour disorders.

Meanwhile, Marion Drache from Windhagen, Germany, will present results from a multi-centre randomised controlled trial with patients with multiple sclerosis (MS). Her study found that hippotherapy (therapeutic riding) when provided as an addition to standard care significantly improved balance, fatigue, spasticity, and quality of life in MS patients. And, Aiko Kojima, a researcher from Japan, will speak about how hippotherapy is used to prevent falls in older people.

Jill Carey’s own research looked at equine-assisted learning for educationally disadvantaged young people. “I found that the children who had the highest levels of social and emotional difficulties benefited most from working with horses. They showed social and emotional learning and their self-awareness was enhanced even three months after the eight-week long programme,” says Carey.

As well as highlighting the variety of equine therapy across the world, Carey hopes the 2018 Horses in Education and Therapy International Congress will highlight the importance of research in this emerging therapeutic field.

Some equestrian centres which offer therapeutic riding and/or equine-assisted learning

– Kilkieran Equestrian Centre, Ballyfoyle, Co Kilkenny: Therapeutic riding is offered at this riding school. See Kilkieran Equestrian Farm on Facebook or 087 937 5726.
– Ainrush Stables, Kilfenane, Co Limerick: Dr Caroline Murphy offers equine-assisted learning for people with mental-health problems and those with an autism spectrum disorder. See or 087 254 3442.
– Kells Equestrian Centre, Kells, Co Meath: Rita Dunne offers therapeutic riding for people with various types of disabilities. See or 086 849 9201.
– Ability Equine Assisted Therapy, Navan, Co Meath: Therapeutic riding and stable-management sessions for people with mental-health problems and various disabilities. See or 086 159 4997.
– Banner Equestrian Centre, Corofin, Co Clare: Therapeutic riding is offered at this family-run and owned equestrian centre. See or 065 682 3487.
– Hairy Henry Therapeutic Riding, Ballylickey, Bantry, Co Cork; Therapeutic riding is a core activity on this small farm in west Cork. See or 087 938 9867.
– Trish's Rockin' Horses, Kiladangan, Co Waterford: Therapeutic riding is the main activity at this riding centre run by Trish Dooley. See or 087 235 4585.
– Festina Lente, Old Connaught Avenue, Bray, Co Wicklow: Siofra Hayes Moriarty and Suzanne Rice offer individual and group sessions of equine-assisted learning and therapeutic riding. See 01-2720704
– Healing Hands Wicklow, Two-Mile-Water, Co Wicklow: Therapeutic riding and other equine-assisted activities for children and adults with special needs. See 087 600 2599.
– Riding for the Disabled Association Ireland: This voluntary organisation offers therapeutic and recreational riding or carriage driving lessons and classes to people with physical or intellectual disabilities. Trained volunteers use local equestrian centres with good wheelchair access and the availability of suitable horses and ponies.