Friday, July 6, 2012

Can Horse Therapy Improve a Person's Core Strength, Balance, and Health?

Horse Therapy for Balance © Katrena
Balance and core strength are challenging for quite a few people. Daily activities in modern society do not necessarily challenge these muscle groups, and many people have chronic conditions that affect key muscles in the neck, torso, and legs.

Loss of balance can have a negative effect on someone's quality of life and place limitations on his or her activities. Unfortunately, a lack of core strength and balance may suddenly become evident in the form of a fall, which can have devastating and sometimes fatal results. Many people turn to yoga, tai chi, functional strength training, and resistance exercises, but can equine-assisted therapy help a person to achieve improved balance and increased core strength?

Hippotherapy for MS, Down's syndrome, Cerebral Palsy © Katrena
What is Horse-assisted Therapy?

Physical therapy incorporating horses, also called hippotherapy or therapeutic riding, may help adults and children to improve control and strength of muscles if the person has a neuromuscular disability, neurological impairment, or weakness in balance muscles. Even people who use wheelchairs for mobility may find equine-assisted therapy to be useful in increasing muscle control.

Examples of conditions in which hippotherapy tends be utilized include Down's syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and cerebral palsy. Adaptive devices, such as a bar on the reins, may help someone to compensate and steer with one hand if necessary, allowing the person to achieve greater independence, which can also have a positive effect on one's psychological health.

As a horse moves, a rider must begin to adapt one's position in order to avoid falling off. Hippotherapy, or equine-assisted therapy, is a type of physical therapy in which a person sits or lies on a horse while the horse moves. Those who begin therapy may need significant assistance from people who stand on the ground on each side of the horse. As therapy progresses, the person may need less and less assistance as they strengthen key muscles used for head control, posture, and balance while riding a horse.
Therapeutic Horseback Riding to Improve Balance & Core Strength - Photo by karakal at Wikimedia Commons
Is Horseback Riding Real Therapy?

Although riding a horse to improve balance sounds tantalizing, is it for real or is this just another way that people have found to make and spend extra money? Do clinical studies back up the theory? Where is the solid evidence?

According to a small clinical study cited in the Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy, horse-assisted therapy may have a positive effect on balance in seniors. Results indicated that older adults who participated in physical therapy with horses achieved improvements in several areas when compared to the control group, including:
  • balance while sitting
  • moving from a seated to standing posture
  • stability in walking
  • changes in walking pattern
A small study cited in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine looked at children with spastic cerebral palsy in Tucson, Arizona. The control group sat on a stationary barrel while the other group participated in physical therapy on a horse. Significant improvement was noted in the group receiving the equine-assisted therapy, while no significant difference was noted in the group using the barrel. In this study, therapy time lasted for only eight minutes.

Another small study published in Physical Therapy looked at children who had documented mild to moderate balance problems. Children in the study received two 45-minute equine-assisted therapy sessions each week for six weeks. These children achieved statistically significant improvement in all measurements of the Pediatric Balance Scale and Activities Scale for Kids-Performance upon completion of the sessions when compared to results before beginning therapy.

Physiotherapy Theory & Practice published results of a study in which subjects participated in hippotherapy for 30 minutes per week for ten weeks. Ten of the eleven participants experienced positive benefits from the program. The most notable improvement was with balance as measured by the Berg balance scale. Additional benefits, such as reduced pain and muscle tension, improved function, and/or improved quality of life related to emotional aspects were enjoyed by some of the participants in this study as well.

A Western Daily Press article recounted how a survivor of a massive stroke participated regularly in equine-assisted therapy. She reported a variety of benefits of the program, not only in balance and posture, but also in dealing with the psychological aspects of dealing with partial paralysis. Her husband also noted favorable changes in his wife after starting equine-assisted therapy.

Horse Therapy - Photo by Prof. Carola Dillenburger at Wikimedia Commons
Can a Horse Improve a Person's Physical Health?

Although balance eludes many people, hippotherapy may provide significant results in helping a person strengthen balance and core muscles, even in a relatively short period of time. Improved posture and balance may lead to an increased quality of life, fewer functional limitations, and greater independence. Horse-assisted physical therapy also gives people the chance to connect with another living being, which may result in numerous intangible rewards. Some insurance companies may provide compensation for equine-assisted therapy for those who qualify.

Readers may wish to look at some real-life testimonials of the benefits of equine-assisted activities on the Saving Grace Farm web site. Find more of Katrena's articles at the Fit Tips 4 Life site map.


Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy Sep/Oct 2011 article by Thais B. Araujo et. al. "Effect of equine-assisted therapy on the postural balance of the elderly"

Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine December 2003 article by William Benda et. al. "Improvements in Muscle Symmetry in Children with Cerebral Palsy After Equine-Assisted Therapy (Hippotherapy)"

Physical Therapy May 2012 article by Debbie J. Silkwood-Sherer et. al. "Hippotherapy: An Intervention to Habilitate Balance Deficits in Children With Movement Disorders: A Clinical Trial"

Physiotherapy Theory & Practice January 2005 article by Ann Hammer et. al. "Evaluation of Therapeutic Riding (Sweden)/Hippotherapy (United States). A single-subject experimental design study replicated in eleven patients with multiple sclerosis."

Western Daily Press (Bristol) February 29, 2008 article "Hippotherapy helps Sue gain confidence"

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