During the 2012 London Paralympics, I watched in fascinated admiration as severely disabled athletes from around the world took part in the dressage competition. I have been a member of the UK National Dressage Judges Panel for many years and have ridden for many years so I appreciate that what these riders have achieved is truly remarkable.
Horse riding is extremely beneficial for disabled people and is increasingly being recommended, especially for children, by specialists and doctors worldwide.
Physical and psychological benefits
It is impossible to sit on a horse, even one moving slowly, without constantly having to adjust your balance. The rider's muscles, especially those of the legs and trunk, must contract and relax continually in order to remain balanced. Such exercise reaches deep muscles which cannot be accessed through conventional physiotherapy. The rider can also be placed in different positions on the horse, (therapeutic vaulting) which effectively works several different sets of muscles. Changes of speed and direction; stopping and started the horse increase the benefits. Horse riding is great fun so it's possible to lengthen "therapy" sessions without the rider feeling overburdened.
Horse riding requires a high degree of coordination from the rider in order to achieve simple changes of pace and direction. The horse also provides instant feedback to the rider's every aid. You very quickly know if you've asked the wrong question of your mount! The repetition of the aids given to the horse helps to quicken the rider's reflexes and is beneficial in improving motor planning.
The very act of sitting astride a horse stretches the thigh muscles. Gravity helps to stretch the muscles in the front of the leg and those in the calves. As the rider strives to maintain an upright position, the stomach and back muscles are also stretched and arm and hand muscles are employed as part of the routine act of holding the reins.
Stiffness and rigidity are reduced by the horse's rhythmic movement and the warmth of the animal may itself assist in relaxation. Riding astride helps to disrupt extensor spasms of the lower limbs while holding the reins breaks up flexor spasm patterns of the arms and hands. As spasticity is decreased, range of motion improves and this is further improved through mounting and dismounting. Relaxation techniques used while riding will also help to reduce abnormal movement.
Riding is not generally regarded as cardiovascular exercise but it does increase both respiration and circulation. Fresh air and exercise also improves the appetite and stimulates the digestive tract so the efficiency of digestion is improved.
Severely disabled children respond particularly well to the whole experience of being around horses and the environment in which they live. All five senses are called into play; touch, smell, sound, vision and even taste.
At the stables there are no doctors, no hospital ward; just other like-minded people enjoying being around horses. There is a tremendous sense of achievement when the horse is persuaded to do what the rider asks and confidence is gained when a disabled person finds that they are perfectly able to ride just as well as an able-bodied person. And there is also the tremendous sense of freedom as the horse enables the disabled rider to access trails, the beach, bridleways and the like where those on two legs cannot go.
I recall judging a young man in a dressage competition some years ago. He was severely disabled but nonetheless was competing on level terms with able-bodied riders. He had little use of his legs and only limited use of his arms but his balance was superb and the partnership and harmony he had with his horse was outstanding. That young man went on to represent his country in two Paralympic Games and won a total of five gold medals.
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