Did you know that therapy with horses can help alleviate MS symptoms? Hippotherapy, or equine assisted therapy, is a useful tool for MS sufferers of any age. Horseback riders receive both emotional and physical benefits from the program.
“The movement of the horse’s pelvis mimics human movement in that it is three dimensional,” says Alice Keeney, a Florida-based physical therapist who currently teaches Hippotherapy at Horses and the Handicapped of South Florida (hhsfl.org). “The horse moves forward and back, side to side, and rotates its hips. This allows the muscles of the rider’s legs to relax and stretch. Hippotherapy has been proven to reduce spasticity in the legs,” she says.
Keeney, a member of NARHA, a nonprofit organization formed in 1969 as the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, says that only qualified therapists and facilities should provide this specialized form of therapy due to safety reasons.
“It’s imperative to have the right horse that has a steady gait and a slow pace,” she says. “It’s also important to adhere to specific safety procedures such as using the proper stirrups.” Keeney points out that the goal of each Hippotherapy session is therapeutic and not to improve riding skills.
“We want to improve muscle tone, balance, [and] increase range of motion or strength,” she says.
But Hippotherapy does more than address the physical aspect of MS. “One of my patients who has MS said that his equine assisted sessions have been his savior,” Keeney says. “He had a lot of issues to deal with relating to his disorder, such as medical and financial problems, but when he sat at on his horse and held those reins, it was the one time he felt in control of his life.”
Keeney says another advantage is that many MS patients are confined to wheelchairs and often look at the world from a low vantage point. “One of my patients summed it up nicely: ‘It’s the only time in my life I can move through space freely,’” she says.
For more information on the benefits of Hippotherapy, visit to NARHA.org or The American Hippotherapy Association at AmericanHippoTherapyAssociation.org.