It was Hippocrates who first wrote about the benefits of horseback riding for physical therapy, over 3,000 years ago. He actually wrote how a rider's pelvis, legs and feet move in synchronization with a walking horse. Thousands of years later this was proven scientifically.
Perhaps the most stunning and inspiring event to shake up the world of physical therapy was Liz Hartel of Denmark winning the Silver Metal in Dressage at the Helsinki Olympic Games in Finland in 1952. Though Polio had left her paralyzed from the knees down and with limited use of her hands in 1944, together with the help of her horse Jubilee, she battled back to not only take the Silver, but also be the first woman in history to win a medal in equestrian games. It is said that her remarkable accomplishment on the world stage is what sparked the idea of equine assisted therapy.
|Liz Hartel & Jubilee|
Therapeutic horseback riding took root in Europe in the 1950's then came to the United States and Canada sometime in the late 1960's. I had the honor a few years ago of writing a story about Barb Heine, who in the '60s and 70's worked tirelessly to promote the use of hippotherapy as an accepted form of physical therapy. Thanks to her and many others who shared like beliefs and understanding of the healing power of the horse, today there are hundreds of equine assisted therapy centers across the U.S. where thousands of selfless horses are doing their part to help heal children, women and men.
Today equine assisted "physical therapy" is used for everything from spinal cord injuries, to stroke victims, to wounded Veterans and skeletal and muscular diseases in children and adults. But seeing the equine/human connection and the ability of the spirit of the horse to touch lives, many therapists began to experiment. They began to use horses to aid in therapies not only related to physical rehabilitation but mental and behavioral health as well.
Equine assisted therapy, or Hippotherapy, (Hippo is the Greek word for horse) is an important, and thankfully, growing form of therapy used to help people of all ages improve and enrich their lives. According to Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International's (PATH Intl.) website www.pathintl.org there are currently over 800 member centers around the globe with an estimated 42,000 student participants, 3,500 instructors 30,000 volunteers annually. And 6,300 equines.
Therapy horses are incredibly valuable and helpful in so many different ways and for so many different treatments. More and more therapists are finding new and exciting results with not only physical but mental stress and confusion, too. The spirit of the horse connects with the spirit of the person as she visits with or rides a therapy horse.
I've written stories about children who've spoken their first word, and smiled their first smile, while riding a therapy horse and Veterans who've begun to manage their struggles with injuries and PTSD with the help of equine therapy. I recently wrote a story about an organization who uses horses to help abused women and girls cope with their situation, and another that uses rescue horses to teach at-risk youths to love life and learn the value and rewards of responsibility.
The world is a better place because of these wonderful people and horses and we thank them for their tireless efforts. The spirit of the horse touches so many lives, heals so many hearts and builds smiles on thousands of faces. If you have the chance, hug a therapy horse.
What is Equine Assisted Therapy? I think it is a special gift from God and horses. A healing, loving gift.
Gitty Up ~ Dutch Henry