This week sees the return of the World Equestrian Games being held in Normandy, France. As usual, the para-riders have impressed spectators in what has now become a much enjoyed and anticipated feature of major international dressage competition. Riding for people with disabilities has always been popular in the UK, but since the British team’s unprecedented success in the 2012 London Olympics, enthusiasm for the sport has reached new heights.
Horse riding is extremely beneficial for those with disabilities and is recommended by specialists and doctors, especially for children.
Physical and psychological benefits
As a regular rider, MS sufferer (and dressage judge), I can assure the reader that it is impossible to ride a horse, even one moving very slowly, without continually adjusting your balance. The muscles of the legs and trunk in particular have to relax and contract constantly in order to stay in balance. This sort of exercise reaches muscles which cannot be accessed via conventional physiotherapy.
Using a technique called ‘therapeutic vaulting’; the rider can be placed in various different positions astride the horse which requires the use of different sets of muscles. Stopping and starting, changing speed and direction also increase the benefits of the exercise. Horse riding is also fun which means that therapy sessions can be lengthened without the patient/rider feeling overburdened.
For those with coordination and balance issues, horse riding is wonderful. Even in order to manage basic changes of pace and direction, a high level of coordination is required and the horse provides the rider with immediate feedback. If you ask the wrong question or give a duff instruction, your equine teacher will very quickly tell you! The aids are repetitive too, which helps to quicken the rider’s reflexes and also improves motor planning. Just sitting astride a horse really stretches the thigh muscles and gravity by itself works the muscles in the front of the leg and the calves. Sitting upright and keeping still utilises the stomach and back muscles and the arms and hands are in constant use as they hold the reins.
The horse’s rhythmic movement together with the animal’s warmth beneath the rider helps alleviate stiffness and promotes relaxation. Sitting astride disrupts extensor spasms affecting the lower limbs and holding the reins serves to break flexor spasm patterns which compromise the hands and arms. As a consequence, range of movement improves and this is further helped through mounting and dismounting.
Although riding is not really regarded as cardiovascular exercise, it can increase circulation and respiration. The exercise and fresh air together stimulates the digestive tract and improves appetite, leading to improvement of the digestive processes.
Just being around horses has proven especially beneficial to severely disabled children. All five senses are used; sound, sight, touch, taste and smell as they explore the animals’ environment. The stables have no doctors, no wards and no unpleasant associations with illness and treatment; just like-minded horse lovers enjoying spending time around their charges. Riders enjoy a tremendous sense of achievement through simply persuading the horse to do as they ask and confidence rockets! Riding gives those with disabilities the ability to access trails, bridleways, the beach and even just country lanes where wheelchair access is difficult or impossible and the resultant sense of freedom and empowerment is unparalleled.
A decade ago, I judged a young man in a dressage competition. He had little use of his arms and legs but was still able to compete against able-bodied riders. His balance was enviable and the partnership and harmony he had achieved with his horse was remarkable. Ten years on the same young man represented his country in two Paralympic Games, winning a total of five gold medals and no doubt the WEG this year will see him add more to his collection.
For more information on riding for people with disabilities; check out the RDA website.