The Healing Power of Occupational Therapy and Horses

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While utilizing horses in occupational therapy is considered an emerging practice by the profession, utilizing horses for therapy is not a revolutionary idea. Horses can be used in a multitude of ways to increase positive outcomes in physical and mental impairments. 

Occupational therapists from Kids Can occupational therapy shine in developing treatment strategies unique to an individual. This allows them to utilize horses in a variety of ways during a treatment session. It’s a unique healthcare profession that at its core involves combining one’s participation in meaningful activities with a holistic view of one’s physical and mental to promote positive outcomes with a client or patient. This profession encompasses a multitude of settings including the traditional healthcare settings to the non-traditional healthcare settings such as stables while also treating a wide spectrum of different diagnoses ranging from biomechanical and physical to behavioral and mental health impairments. 

My foray into occupational therapy occurred when I donated my pony to a therapeutic riding academy. Watching her shine in that environment and win multiple gold medals at the Special Olympics inspired me to investigate occupational therapy as a career so I could blend my passions of working with horses and helping people. I’ve always known that I wanted to do something with horses professionally but didn’t know what I wanted to do until I happened upon occupational therapy. It uses horses to encompass hippotherapy, therapeutic riding, and grooming exercises. This promotes positive biomechanical, behavioral, and mental health outcomes in a diverse population.

Photo courtesy of Caroline Lurie

Hippotherapy is a form of therapy that can only be performed by certified occupational and physical therapists. It utilizes the horse’s rhythmic gaits to build one’s muscle strength and range of motion while also developing social skills and boosting one’s self-esteem. This form of therapy can be adapted to many different forms of goals ranging from learning to walk on one’s own to building muscle strength while learning to vault. Since occupational therapists focus more on increasing one’s functional abilities, games are usually played to make the session more fun. The games help work on important skills such as hand-eye coordination, communication, and balance which are necessary to be successful in the classroom. Hippotherapy can also be done in the form of going on a sensory trail ride that includes involving all one’s senses while performing activities on a trail. Occupational therapists can incorporate grooming into the hippotherapy session to teach one about hygiene, increasing finger dexterity while braiding, and promoting relaxation through sensory input. 

Therapeutic or adapted riding incorporates the basic premise of being an equestrian while making the sport accessible for everyone. While you do not need to be an occupational therapist to teach therapeutic riding lessons, occupational therapists have the unique view of creating customized and universal adaptive equipment to increase participation to increase one’s mental and physical health and promote wellness. For one of the projects in my program, I created a set of adaptive reins that allows a person who has decreased grip strength and difficulty grasping thin objects to easily hold the reins. Therapeutic riding can also be used in conjunction with hippotherapy to increase social skills through group lessons and increase wellness through participation in leisure activities. 

Groundwork can be done with a horse for therapeutic reasons with a focus on mental health. Occupational therapists can use horses to teach body language, communication, and other important skills when working with individuals who have mental health or behavioral disorders. Horses are a wonderful motivating factor in therapy. They can help promote a desire to change within an individual. It can also be easier for a person or child to connect with a horse rather than a peer for several different circumstances, including trauma. This type of groundwork can also be used to teach or increase teamwork strategies in a group setting by having the team perform difficult tasks such as walking the horse over an obstacle or putting on a halter. 

In my experience volunteering, I’ve witnessed a few instances where horses combined with occupational therapy changed someone’s life. One client who was nonverbal said his first word in his twenties when he asked his horse to go to the right. Other clients blossomed during hippotherapy and therapeutic riding. They grew into more confident individuals who were better at communicating through learning how to be an effective leader for the horses they rode. Another client got all dressed up for his lesson—including picking out a polo shirt himself and putting gel in his hair—because he knew that his horse was going to be all dressed up for a little at-home horse show. 

As I work towards becoming a licensed occupational therapist, I look forward to uncovering more of how horses can be used to change people’s lives. 

Caroline was born and raised in Los Angeles, although she now divides her time between the East and West Coast for school. You can find her showing with her horse Stanley in the hunter ring outside of her Occupational Therapy Student obligations.