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  • By Lisa Jevens

Horseback riding as equine therapy

From young children with autism to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to seniors with Alzheimer's disease — and just typical families going through a rough patch — many are benefitting from horseback riding and horse interaction.

Equestrians know that horses are magical. Horses are both earthy and mythical, powerful yet gentle. Although used for millennia simply as a means to get from here to there, their ability to improve our health is only now beginning to reveal itself.

Horseback riding is good exercise. It takes balance, strength and endurance to control a 1,200-pound horse with your legs, arms and hands as it moves through various gaits. Horseback riding demands mental concentration and communication, too. And now research is showing that simply being around horses can be therapeutic for humans.

Over the last 10 years, credible studies on the benefits of horseback riding and equine-human contact has been conducted around the world, says KC Henry, executive director of the Horses & Humans Research Foundation, which awards research grants. “It is all showing incredible trends that could benefit our society.”

For example, people with cerebral palsy notice dramatic physical improvements after horseback riding, Henry says. “It really motivates a child who has been strapped into a wheelchair, immobile for years. Riding (with assistance) strengthens their muscles and motivates their spirits to reach their physical goals.

“We have seen that self-control improves in those with autism,” she continues. “Subjects communicate more and are able to participate socially.”

People who have trouble relating to others or keeping a job can come into an equine environment and learn. “They don’t even have to ride because one relates to a horse primarily through nonverbal skills,” she explains. “The horse reacts to your anxiety level. This can help you rethink how you present yourself in your own community and your social circle.”

Anne Joyner, founder and CEO of Talisman Therapeutic Riding Inc., in Grasonville, Maryland., says horseback riding benefits teens and tweens who are being bullied by giving them confidence. It also helps stroke victims regain balance. And it helps veterans with PTSD.

“When you are riding, you are having fun. It’s an adventure,” Joyner says. “You are not thinking about anything else but that activity. For people with PTSD, it’s a relief not to have their minds filled with the experiences they have been through.”

Equestrian Connection in Lake Forest, Illinois, often hosts seniors with memory issues from nearby senior communities.

“We find that clients are much more engaged and having fun when they are here at the barn,” says Colette Collins, special programs director there.

“There was a woman who hadn’t spoken in a couple of months, and someone asked if she wanted to come back. She looked right at us and said, ‘Yes!’ You know it’s working when someone has severe depression, and the horse puts their head in their lap in their wheelchair and the person starts smiling,” Collins says. “Or when a father and son who were having difficulty came together to groom a horse, then started relating to each other and talking about their experience in a way they haven’t in a long time.”

Horseback riding has benefits for the average person or family, as well, with or without a diagnosis. Whether for building core strength, improving balance, or just getting away from your daily thoughts and worries, experts say horseback riding can be good exercise and a very calming and centering experience.

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun "From House to Home" section, and on on July 30, 2015.

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