ACA Blog

Dec 06, 2012

Horses as Counselors: Therapeutic Horsemanship

[caption id="attachment_7044" align="alignleft" width="150"] Lisa Krystosek [/caption]

This week we will jump into the saddle to gain some insight into the world of Therapeutic Horsemanship.

What is Therapeutic Horsemanship?
Therapeutic Horsemanship is considered to be a recreational therapy for people with disabilities. The sessions are horseback riding lessons that involve goal-oriented activities structured to teach horsemanship and riding skills. The sessions are conducted by a certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor. To become certified, most programs require instructors to complete a series of coursework, a practicum of supervised instruction and to pass a written exam. In addition, before becoming fully certified, instructors are required to climb into the saddle and perform a riding test to display their own riding competency.

In addition to the instructor, two “side walkers” and one “leader” is required for each horse. A side walker is a person who walks beside the horse and performs a therapeutic hold on the rider’s leg to ensure they remain safe in the saddle. Side walkers are also essential in the mounting and dismounting process. They are trained to keep the rider safe, even in the event a quick dismount from the horse becomes necessary. The leader is the person who maintains control of the horse. The amount of control a leader has over the horse is adjusted to the skill level of the rider. It is important to note that side walkers and leaders are usually volunteers. In other words, they are fantastic people who graciously give their time to help others!

Therapeutic Horsemanship may also be referred to as Therapeutic Riding or Adaptive Riding. It also encompasses other methods such as Therapeutic Vaulting and Therapeutic Driving (we will explore these methods in the near future). As mentioned last week, Therapeutic Horsemanship is often confused with Hippotherapy. Hippotherapy utilizes the horse as a tool to evoke movement similar to walking in people who cannot walk on their own. Therapeutic horsemanship takes this one step further by engaging the mind and other senses in the process. It goes beyond using just the movement of the horse for treatment purposes and focuses on the enhancement of horseback riding skills. The value of Therapeutic Horsemanship is multifaceted in that it provides physical, psychological as well as social benefits.

I believe the best way to illustrate this concept is through a case study. I have changed names to maintain confidentiality, but this vignette offers a perfect example of the holistic value Therapeutic Horsemanship offers to clients.

Max & Charger
Max is an energetic, light-hearted seven-year old. Max also has Spina Bifida. He cannot walk or even stand up on his own. He wears braces on his legs and requires assistance to do the smallest tasks. His physical condition doesn’t slow him down much, however. Sporting a pair of cowboy boots and a riding helmet, Max is carried into the arena by his mother. He is chattering in that animated manner only an excited child can generate. He receives a warm welcome from the instructor and gives one of his fellow riders a high-five. He then looks eagerly around the arena for his favorite friend at Equine-Assisted Therapy.

Max’s smile broadens when he finds who he is looking for: a small chestnut-colored horse named Charger. Charger is a seasoned, veteran therapist. As always, he greets Max by gently nudging him on the arm with his muzzle. Max hugs Charger around the neck in response. Max then stretches his arms in front of him and pretends he is Superman as the volunteer side walkers lift him gently onto Charger’s back. When he is balanced in the saddle and has a grip on the reins, Charger’s leader urges him into a slow ambling walk around the perimeter of the arena. Max is thrilled.

The instructor begins the lesson by guiding the group of riders through a series of stretches, such as reaching hands to the sky and touching the horse’s mane and tail. She then takes the lead in a game of follow the leader through various obstacles requiring riders to guide their horses over poles on the ground, around large barrels and to weave through a series of cones. Max and his classmates tackle the activities with enthusiasm and a significant amount of giggling. The lesson closes with an exciting game of “Stop Light.” This is one of the group’s favorite games and it requires mental focus and precise physical actions. During the game, the instructor holds three colored cards: one green, one yellow and one red. Before the game begins, the instructor tells the group what activity each card will require of them. They are given the directions only one time. At the instructor’s discretion, she holds up one of the cards above her head and the riders respond as quickly as possible. The first rider to respond correctly wins that round. Usually, the green card means walk forward, the yellow card means slow down and the red card means stop. Today, however, the group is happy to learn there is to be an added twist to the game. This time, the riders are told to walk their horses in the circle if the green card goes up. The yellow card means the riders must back their horse three steps and the red card tells riders to halt their horses and sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. All riders complete the game successfully and Max wins a round when he confidently navigates Charger in a circle as soon as the instructor holds up the green card. It is a great ending to the lesson and all riders are in high spirits.

The riders dismount one at a time and each horse receives an abundance of pats and hugs. Side walkers and horse leaders also receive their share of hugs. The students leave the arena smiling ear-to-ear as they tell their parent or care-giver about their accomplishments.

Max looks forward to seeing Charger each week and participating in therapeutic riding sessions. He considers his instructors, all of the volunteers and his fellow riders to be friends. Therapeutic Horsemanship has expanded his world and provided him with an opportunity to set and reach goals that improve his life outside of the arena. In addition, Max’s parents look forward to his weekly riding lesson because they have made friends with the parents of other children in the program. Spending time with people in a similar situation, who understand both the joy and hardship of raising a child like Max is extremely comforting, even therapeutic, to Max’s parents.

Heartwarming accounts like this are common to hear at therapeutic riding centers around the world. Therapeutic riding lessons provide children and adults with an opportunity for physical activity that they may not receive any other way. In addition, participation in a therapeutic riding program will help a rider increase mental acuity through goal-oriented activities. These activities are designed to increase focus and attention span as well as the ability to follow instructions. Finally, horseback riding is fun and riding in a group provides the opportunity for participants to socialize with peers in a friendly, supportive atmosphere. It also creates a network for socialization and support amongst the parents and caregivers of the participants. The instructors and volunteers often receive an emotional benefit from their work as well. Overall, the experience is positive and rewarding for everyone involved.

Want to learn more about Therapeutic Horsemanship? Here are some great resources:

Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), International:
Equine Assisted Therapy, Inc.:

Lisa Krystosek is a counselor in St. Louis, Missouri. She specializes in Equine-Facilitated Counseling to help adults, adolescents and children improve their lives. To contact Lisa, please visit

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