Sitting within the confines of an office and talking to a therapist or within the walls of a physical rehabilitation centre doesn’t always work for kids and adults grappling with tough mental, emotional and physical health issues.
Growing up, I loved talking to my horse Superman and I would share details and insights with him that I couldn’t share with anyone else. There was a sort of comfort there, knowing that my horse could understand me and enjoyed listening to me talk. Mounted atop Superman, I used to notice his ears move every time I started to talk, making me feel relaxed.
But, in a time when conversations about behavioural and mental health, anxiety and depression are looked down upon in the sports industry, and when these topics are considered to be a social stigma, how does one go about discussing therapy and help? What about people with physical disabilities? “A disability is socially constructed because it represents a deviation from a socially valued norm” (Szto, 2018). How do individuals with disabilities engage in improvement exercises and therapies when their disabilities are considered abnormal by the able-bodied society?
We look into how exercises like equine-assisted therapy help disabled individuals improve their cognitive, motor and social skills and question why equine-assisted therapy is inaccessible to the larger disabled demographic. Along with this, we look at the notion of the supercrip and how it ties in with our focus on the disabled individual trying to improve and develop their day-to-day skills.
“Sport, for people with disabilities has played a major role in improving the lives of people with disabilities within the wider society” (Brittain, Ramshaw & Gammon, 2013). The introduction of sports as a form of therapy has had a significant impact on accelerating the rehabilitation process of individuals suffering from mental health issues as well as physical disabilities.
Equine-assisted therapy, which is a form of therapy that involves interactions between patients and horses, coincides with the principles of horseback riding. As horseback riding rhythmically moves the rider’s body in a manner similar to a human walk, riders with physical disabilities participating in equine-assisted therapy often show an improvement in flexibility, balance and muscle strength.
Imagine being around a horse and feeling absolutely relaxed! Horses encapsulate you in a calming and soothing atmosphere. They don’t judge you for your disabilities. Unlike smaller therapy animals like cats and dogs, horses have a comforting presence that is magnified by their size. Since horses are considered prey animals, being able to connect with them through unconditional acceptance dismisses any fears and enhances a positive and safe attachment to the animal. Through the practice of grooming, petting and riding the horses, individuals with disabilities get to create an intimate bond with the animal, allowing them to develop a one-of-a-kind relationship. Now, who wouldn’t want to be around this majestic creature?
“Equine-assisted therapies are exercise therapies that can have positive physical effects on coordination, muscle tone, postural alignment, stiffness/flexibility, endurance and strength, correcting abnormal movement patterns and improving gait and balance”. (Stergiou, Tzoufi, Ntzani, Varvarousis, Beris, & Ploumis, 2017)
Let’s look into how equine-assisted therapy helps individuals with physical and behavioural disabilities improve their cognitive, motor and social skills.
Cognitive and Behavioural Skills
With in-depth studies conducted on how disabled individuals focus on “lower extremity muscle strength and cardiovascular exercises” (Stergiou et. al) to improve their day-to-day quality of life, it is also important to look into how these exercises including hippotherapy, and therapeutic horse riding show an improvement in balance and muscle strength of upper and lower limbs in these individuals’ bodies.
Hippotherapy, a practice where the rider focuses on the movement of the horse as well as therapeutic horse riding provide benefits in the areas of therapy, education sport, and recreation and leisure. While riding a horse, the rider uses their large muscle groups, allowing them to focus on their “gross motor skills” (State line tack, n.d.). The act of riding itself helps improve motor skills as the rider rises and sits to the horse’s rhythm and body movement. Since riding requires both coordination and balance, therapeutic horse riding helps improve these areas when the rider mounts and dismounts the horse. The riders are taught how to coordinate their movements and follow along with instructions. As a rider learns to stay on the horse and hold the correct posture, their muscles learn to work together to help maintain balance, while also developing core strength.
Therapeutic horse riding and hippotherapy also help improve the social skills of people with disabilities who may have trouble interacting with others. Along with the bond that is naturally built between the individual and the horse during the lessons that are given, the instructors and riders develop a relationship through conversation as well. The challenges associated with therapy allow the riders and disabled individuals to channel their fear, aggression or frustration in a positive manner and leave them open to interaction with the therapist or instructor. These interactions can be fruitful in the cognitive, behavioural, motor and social development of disabled individuals. (State line tack, n.d.)
“The horse is the perfect mirror, they are very emotional beings… everyone has a reaction to horses; nobody is different. People either love them or fear them, so that’s two big emotions that immediately reflect what most of life’s issues revolve around. If you can work with an animal like this and overcome the fear, then it isn’t a bad starting point.” (McVeigh, 2012)
Most sporting and therapeutic activities are available to those with economic and cultural capital. With equine assisted therapy becoming known for its effectiveness and advantages, there are, however, glimpses of the culture of equestrianism and sports therapy that are present in our society for their class and social hierarchical power.
Is Equine-Assisted Therapy a Class Act?
“Equestrian sport is widely considered a bourgeois pursuit and is associated with the upper class in the popular imagination” (Coulter, 2014). For the able-bodied rider, horse riding is but one component of luxury (including, vacations, expensive clothing etc.) but is an important part of the rider’s identity (Coulter, 2014). With big money brands such as Longines and Rolex sponsoring Polo and Show-Jumping events throughout the year plus at a global scale along with upper-class aficionados in attendance, equestrian culture certainly comes with a price tag. But let’s look into why equine therapy in itself is an expensive and inaccessible method to seek assistance in the first place.
Many equine therapists don’t take medical insurance and the ones that do, only provide partial coverage. The upkeep of horses, premises, and public liability insurance, together with staffing costs make it an expensive practice (Burgon, 2011). Children with disabilities and athletes who require physical rehabilitation choose to participate in equine-assisted therapy for its effectiveness, however, with rising health care costs and by not gaining enough one-on-one time with licensed instructors or therapists, disabled individuals fail to make the most of their improvements. With an average cost of $140 per session (Pajer, 2017), those who are successful at obtaining partial insurance coverage eventually end up paying the bigger share out of their own pockets (Esposito, 2016).
So why is this inaccessibility an issue? The unattainability of therapy programs and exercises simply due to lack of economic power plays into the notion of class struggles. There are individuals who can and cannot afford to pay the costs and there are “those shackled with debt do not have the privilege of choice” (Szto, 2018). With its increasing costs, equine-assisted therapy does help disabled individuals who seek to improve their cognitive and behavioural skills, but the practice only goes as far as helping the community in a small way. Therapy isn’t accessible to everyone!
With equestrianism itself being established as an elitist culture and with physical and behavioural therapy not being a feasible opportunity to explore for many disabled individuals, the practice certainly puts a dent in the pocket. Do you think disabled individuals should get a free pass or an advantage in being able to access top-notch exercise and care programs such as equine therapy?
Focus on the disabled community and the notion of the supercrip
“Sport is considered to be an important social and cultural practice within society”, so why don’t disability sport and related therapy exercises get the attention they deserve? When the disabled community is convinced by the media and scholars that their skills and behaviours are “unworthy of inclusion” in traditional and popular norms, it can affect their development and recognition in the society (Brittain, Ramshaw & Gammon, 2013).
Supercrips are “individuals whose inspirational stories of courage, dedication and hard work prove it can be done, that one can defy the odds and accomplish the impossible” (Smith, 2014). The supercrip narrative focuses on disabled individuals as being superhuman; as being able to overcome any challenges and difficulties they face. However, reading multiple articles and stories and quotes on the internet about how inspirational and courageous these individuals are, and to have participated in equine-related activities that seem to frighten able-bodied people, makes a blatant case for how the disabled community is portrayed in our society. “Wow, look at Jack! He has a disability, but he can mount a horse!” This is where the able-bodied community creates an idolized perception of disabled individuals in their minds. In contrast, however, equine-assisted therapy is not about a concrete goal of overcoming one’s disability but rather about improving with one’s disability. The end goal of this therapy is not about the cure in itself. Equine-assisted therapy promotes a process where the goal is improvement and development.
Equine-assisted therapy allows disabled individuals to connect with the animal and benefit from contact with horses. With notions of supercrip prominent in our society, it is important to realize that just like able-bodied people, disabled people face challenges as well and through therapy, they partake in a journey to their own personal end goals.
Through therapeutic exercises and programs, horses help take away the negative energy from its rider and promote healing by releasing these negative energies away from the rider. These are viable programs that help improve cognitive and motor skills of disabled individuals by emphasizing on their use of large muscle groups and feeling the movement of the horse. Social skills develop through engaging in conversation with the instructors or even channelling one’s emotions while riding horses. However, with rising health care costs, therapeutic riding becomes just as expensive as regular therapy sessions in the confines of four walls. With parents of disabled children and other disabled individuals facing trouble with economic capital, it’s no wonder equine-assisted therapy falls under the scrutiny of inaccessible health care despite its effectiveness. The notion of the supercrip brings about insightful details around why disabled people are looked at as heroes for facing everyday challenges. With a contrasting opinion on how equine-assisted therapy focuses more on the individual’s journey rather than the ultimate goal helps us understand the perceptions of able-bodied people towards the disabled.
Horses understand their riders and build relations with them just like any other domestic animal. They are big creatures with even bigger hearts. Who would’ve thought that horses could be our therapists?
- Burgon, H. L. (2011). ‘Queen of the world’: Experiences of ‘at-risk’ young people participating in equine-assisted learning/ therapy. Journal of Social Work Practice,25(02), 165-183. doi:10.1080/02650533.2011.561304
- Brittain, I., Ramshaw, G., & Gammon, S. (2013). The Marginalisation of Paralympic Heritage. International Journal of Heritage Studies,19(2), 171-185. doi:10.1080/13527258.2012.681679
- Coulter, K. (2014). Herds and Hierarchies: Class, Nature, and the Social Construction of Horses in Equestrian Culture. Society & Animals,22(2), 135-152. doi:10.1163/15685306-12341253
- Esposito, L. (2016, September 2). Equine Therapy: How Horses Help Humans Heal.
- McVeigh, T. (2012, February 25). Not just horsing around … psychologists put their faith in equine therapies.
- Pajer, N. (2017, May 19). Why Is Therapy So Expensive?
- The Benefits of Therapeutic Horseback Riding and Equine Interaction. (n.d.).
- Smith, L. R. (2015). The Blade Runner: The Discourses Surrounding Oscar Pistorius in the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Communication & Sport,3(4), 390-410. doi:10.1177/2167479513519979
- Stergiou, A., Tzoufi, M., Ntzani, E., Varvarousis, D., Beris, A., & Ploumis, A. (2017). Therapeutic Effects of Horseback Riding Interventions. American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation,96(10), 717-725. doi:10.1097/phm.0000000000000726
- Szto, C. (2018). Lecture 11: Disability [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from SFU Canvas.
- Szto, C. (2018). Lecture 2: Political Economy [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from SFU Canvas.