What does speech pathology have to do with horses?

horseUntil recently, my response to this question would have been a loud and resounding “nothing”.  Unless, of course it is small and plastic.

But when I started at The Glenleighden School I quickly learnt that students attended weekly horse riding lessons at a nearby riding for the disabled program. At my first lesson I looked on in silent horror as our tiny Prep students marched confidently across the arena to mount these giant animals. Why couldn’t they just play a nice safe game of soccer instead?

After asking this question I was soon informed that students with disabilities often do not or are unable to participate in mainstream sports and leisure activities (e.g. soccer, swimming, netball) without significant support.  However, horse riding is an activity, which for many years, has been accessible to people with disabilities. In fact, horses have been utilised as a therapeutic aid since the fifth century B.C. when they were used in the rehabilitation of wounded Greek soldiers to speed recovery (Mayberry, 1978). English physician and ‘horse nut’, Lord Thomas Sydenham, is also cited as stating that the benefits of horse riding “transcend the physical” (Voynick, 1988).  However, despite the benefits of horse riding being known for centuries, using horse riding as a therapeutic tool did not gain popularity until the 50’s.

The physical benefits of horse riding have long been found to normalise muscle tone and improve coordination, as well as balance, strength and movement.  The three dimensional movement (e.g. up-down, side to side, front-back) of a horse’s pelvis also mimics the movement of a human’s pelvis during walking.  The variability, rhythmicity and repetitiveness of the horse’s gait, enables the degree of input to be graded for an individual, which can then be used in combination with other treatment strategies to achieve therapeutic outcomes (MacKinnon et. al, 1995).

In the 80’s, Dismuke conducted a study comparing traditional language therapy with language therapy in a riding setting.  After 12 weeks of intervention, a significant improvement in language skills was found with the riders when compared to the non-riders.  For the occupational therapists and physiotherapists reading, they also demonstrated improvement in muscle strength, bilateral coordination and visual perception.

From personal experience, I have found horse riding to be the ultimate positive reward system.  A child with poor communication MUST use a verbal command in order to move the horse forward.  I have witnessed students who have never spoken more than single, disjointed words command their horse to “walk on” with astounding bravado, while others who could not sit still at a desk suddenly sit tall and proud in their saddles.

In recent years I have been fortunate enough to work closely with horse riding trainers to harness our student’s enthusiasm and the therapeutic nature of horse riding to implement targeted outcomes.  This has focussed on receptive and expressive language goals, as well as literacy, attention and conversation skills.  Consistent strategies and resources have been implemented with great success, including social stories, visual cues, sign language and ensuring the use of consistent, simplified language.  The horse riding itself is even a motivating topic of conversation.  One parent in the past has said to me, “Every day I ask my child how their day was and I never get a reply.  But after horse riding all of a sudden the words just seem to bubble out and I’m able to have a conversation with my child for the very first time.”  What an amazing effect horse riding can have!

Today my answer to “what does speech pathology have to do with horses?” is a loud and resounding “everything”.  While I always knew the best therapy was conducted in context, it seemed like a big deal to step outside the therapy room and into the arena.  But I’m glad I did.

Shaun Ziegenfusz

Speech Language Pathologist

Dismuke, R. (1981). Therapeutic horsemanship. The Quarter Horse Journal,34-37.

MacKinnon, J.R., Noh, S., Laliberte, D., Lariviere, J. & Allan, D.E. (1995). Therapeutic horseback riding: A review of the literature. Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics,  15(1), 1-15.

Mayberry, R.P. (1978). The mystique of the horse is strong medicine: Riding as therapeutic recreation.  Rehabilitation Literature, 39, 192-196.

Voynick, S. (1988). Equestrian therapy: horseback riding offers physical and emotional advantages. East/West, 18(5), 14-24.

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