Horse power for people with disabilities: Therapeutic riding

Throw on your floppy hat and grab an ice cold glass of sweet-tea. Tomorrow (6:35 p.m. Eastern Time on NBC) California Chrome is racing to be the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years. The legacy of California Chrome, a horse from humble beginnings, is quickly shaping up to be the feel-good sports story of the summer. His background sounds like something right out of Hollywood:

  • California Chrome was purchased by a naïve, yet hopeful duo in 2008.
  • His jockey, Victor Espinoza, grew up learning to ride on donkeys in Mexico.
  • Chrome’s trainer, 77-year-old Art Sherman, is the oldest trainer to ever win the Derby.

The inspirational story of California Chrome is just one of many involving our four legged friends. Outside of the racing spotlight, horses provide joy and excitement to humans in other ways, too: they nurture and give confidence to people living with disabilities.

In 1961, Danish athlete Lis Hartel became the first woman to win an Olympic medal in the equestrian sports. Hartel had been diagnosed with polio 17 years prior to her big win, and even though she was paralyzed from the knees down, her perseverance and strong will led her to Olympic history: she’s credited as the inspiration behind therapeutic riding.

A disability is not a limitation for horseback riding. Horseback riding offers many physical, emotional and social benefits for people of all abilities. As a summer camp kid, horseback riding was my favorite activity. I loved the liberating feeling of wind blowing in my hair as I took in the great outdoors.

This soothing movement of horseback riding has physical benefits for people living with disabilities. Horseback riding rhythmically moves the rider’s body in a manner similar to a human pace. Riders with physical disabilities often show improvement in flexibility, balance and muscle strength after they work with horses.

In addition to physical benefits, therapeutic riding provides emotional and social benefits for developing children. It can improve self-esteem and self-confidence in the children who ride them, promote communication and interpersonal skills and develop neuro-motor function and sensory processing. Last, but not least, riding promotes another crucial characteristic…fun!

Get more information on Easter Seals Western and Central Pennsylvania’s fabulous horseback riding program.


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  1. Alex Says:

    I actually used to help out with a program my school had called “Riding for the Disabled”. A local orphanage for children with disabilities brought some children every week to the stable and we would put them on a pony and lead them around the ring (with two people on either side in case they started to tip).

    The children LOVED this and they seemed to get some real benefit out of it. I think that programs like this should really be promoted because I haven’t seen many programs at all in my area.