While research behind equine therapy has been in many ways, incomplete, the research around the neurological effects of equine therapy may be even less comprehensive. Yet, therapeutic riding programs have been especially effective with attentional disorders, and many have speculated that this has to do with the areas of the brain that are stimulated by riding a horse.
Somehow, the combination of vertical, horizontal and lateral balance that is required by the movements of the horse stimulate the rider’s central nervous system. These areas of the brain that control specific motor functions also correspond to a variety of behaviors. In response to this, neurotransmitters, such as natural endorphins, are released and can cause a variety of emotional and behavioral effects (Spink, 1993). These behavioral effects are similar to the effects of the “workout high” or “runner’s high.”
Because of this effect, recent research studies have looked into the profound impact of therapeutic riding with a variety of populations. Kaiser, Smith, Heleski, and Spence (2006) used an 8-week therapeutic riding program, to demonstrate decreases in anger in adolescent males. Additionally, these mothers’ perceptions of their sons’ behaviors improved. Another study found statistically significant improvements in self-concept, intellectual and school status, popularity, happiness, and satisfaction in emotionally and behaviorally challenged teens (Emory, 1992).
And these effects have also been found with patients with thought disorders and learning disabilities. Scheidhacker, Bender, and Vaitel (1991) found that people with chronic schizophrenia managed their symptoms much better while participating in therapeutic riding. Learning disabled children showed improved information retrieval and processing when working with horses (Crothers’, 1994).
As riding a horse stimulates both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously, it is also thought that the areas of the brain that control attention, impulses, and activity levels are directly stimulated. As energy is directed to different parts of the brain, and attention is called to many separate tasks at once (picture holding reins, balancing, and directing the horse, all while completing a task), the neurotransmitters released when riding create an effect that is similar to the one created by stimulant medication. This then makes it possible for an ADHD child to concentrate; be less hyperactive, fidget, impulsive.
Crothers, G. (1994). Learning disability: Riding to success. Nursing Standard, 8, 16-18.
Emory, D. (1992). Effects of therapeutic horsemanship on the self-concepts and behavior of asocial adolescents. Dissertation Abstracts International, DAI-B 53/05, 561.
Kaiser, L., Smith, K., Heleski, C., & Spence, L. (2006). Effects of a therapeutic riding program on at-risk and special needs children. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 228, 46-52.
Scheidhacker, M., Bender, W., and Vaitel, P. (1991). The effectiveness of therapeutic horseback riding in the treatment of chronic schizophrenic patients. Experimental results and clinical experiences. Nervenarzt, 62, 283-287.
Spink, J. (1993). Developmental riding therapy: A team approach to assessment and treatment. Therapy Skill Builders. Tucson, Az.
Horse desk ornament photo available from Shutterstock