In the past, many cultures held horses in high esteem. The Lakota Indians, for example, considered the horse sacred. Today, equine therapy has proven to be a powerful healing force for people with disabilities and disorders. From PTSD to autism, those in need can find a special bond with an animal who offers unconditional love and provides therapeutic results that go far beyond the riding experience itself. Therapeutic equine work is being fueled by research that supports its effectiveness. A Colorado University scientist recently published a randomized controlled trial of therapeutic riding for children with autism, demonstrating that the horse-human connection can lead to improved social or communication skills for those on the spectrum.

In a similar study, a group of veterans who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) found that an encounter with a horse helped them to relax and focus on their mental health recovery. In fact, a one-time interaction with a horse can transform an individual’s life. A physical therapist at Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center in El Paso, Texas, explains that she finds the impact that horses have on human wellness to be quite extraordinary. “We have an amazing program here, and we have a lot of veterans who come to us for help in their healing,” she says. “Even a one-time interaction with the horses can change their whole outlook on life.” As a form of physical therapy, equine assisted therapy helps to strengthen muscles and increase flexibility.

This allows for a greater range of motion for individuals with spastic cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury or traumatic brain injury. In addition, it can improve balance and increase body awareness and spatial relationships. It is also beneficial for those with hypertonia, or excessive muscle tone, which is common in those with spastic cerebral palsy, stroke or traumatic brain injury. The movement of the horse mirrors their own walking motion, which can relax muscles and help them regain their strength. The bond that develops between a rider and the horse is often transformative, not only in terms of the positive physical effects but also in terms of socialization, communication, and confidence. Riders build a relationship with their horse that quickly carries over to their interactions with other humans, including family and friends.

As a result of their interactions with humans, horses have been shown to exhibit an instinctive understanding of what is happening around them, particularly when it comes to human body language. They have even been known to synchronize their heart rates with their human counterparts, helping them to relax and feel calm. When the time comes to dismount, riders are guided by a trained PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) volunteer who helps them get off and on their horse, providing support from both sides. In addition, all therapeutic equine activities are carried out in a safe environment with the guidance of an experienced horse leader and side-walkers who walk alongside the rider to provide safety.