Equine therapy is catching on as a fun and helpful activity for many MS patients.
One to three times a week a growing group of MS patients across the country saddle up to relieve some of their symptoms and to boost their self-esteem. Equine therapy is used to treat a variety of diseases and disorders besides MS, including mental illness, cerebral palsy, and brain injury. According to the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association Inc. (NARHA) in Denver, Colorado, more than 26,000 riders with disabilities benefit from therapeutic horseback riding activities at NARHA centers.
Hippotherapy, which means "treatment with the help of a horse," has been widely practiced in this country since the 1960's. In 1952 at the Helsinki Olympic Games, Liz Hartel of Denmark garnered the silver medal for dressage (The execution by a trained horse of complex movements in response to barely perceptible signals from its rider.) despite being paralyzed from polio. Her victory helped focus the world on using horses to improve the health of those with various disabilities. As the experts investigated various ways for horses to help patients, they found that not all people can be aided in the same way.
"Hippotherapy is using the horse strictly as a modality for therapy, where the riders are not influencing the horse at all," explains Occupational Therapist Erin Hurley, director of the Unicorn Handicapped Riding Association in Medford, NJ. "Equestrian therapy is more of a global term. It combines therapy and recreation. That's what most people with MS do. I think they get more out of it if they are an active partner in the process."
According to the NARHA, research shows that all therapeutic riding participants can experience physical, emotional, and mental rewards. Because horseback riding gently and rhythmically moves the rider's body in a manner similar to a human gait, riders with physical disabilities often show improvement in flexibility, balance, and muscle strength. For those with mental or emotional problems, the unique relationship formed with the horse can lead to boosted confidence, patience, and self-esteem. All who ride also receive the benefit of a special sense of independence which comes from riding.
Equine therapy can provide certain benefits to MS patients. "The benefits from the therapy depend on the disability. With MS, it's a physical disability in which case there are a lot of different benefits. For example, if you have an MS patient in a wheelchair, he (or she) is not getting a lot of stimulation to the spine," Ms. Hurley says. "The horse's movement stimulates the human movement in the way the horse walks. If you're sitting on the horse's back, you're getting those benefits of side to side movement and rotation movement each time the horse steps forward. Just the sensory input helps to stimulate the muscles in different ways. At the other end of the spectrum with spascity, equestrian therapy helps to loosen tight muscles especially through the hip area, lower extremities, and through the trunk."
The MS patients who ride at Ms. Hurley's center come either once or twice a week. They ride for 30 minutes with the help of two side walkers, a person who leads the horse, and an instructor. By having the four people work alongside the rider, safety is ensured. Since these helpers are trained to work with MS patients who have weakness and balance problems, no one should be afraid to give horse therapy a try, say the experts.
"Each person works on different goals as we walk through the woods or inside our indoor arena depending on the weather," she says. "One woman with MS who started with us this year was having trouble walking. After a ride she says she can walk much better."
The experts and MS patients say that equestrian therapy offers much more to MS patients then symptom relief. "It raises their self-esteem and gives them something to do for recreation. They love it and really look forward to it," says Ms. Hurley.
Just getting out in the fresh air and doing something physical can do wonders for MS patients say the experts. "One of the most frustrating aspects of chronic illness or disability is the effect it has on leisure-time activities. Just when a person would benefit most from the relaxation, enjoyment, and socialization that come from recreation, he is limited in what he can do. It is important, however, despite what limitations may exist, to maintain existing or find new interests," write Dr. Robert Shuman and Dr. Janice Schwartz in their book, Understanding Multiple Sclerosis: A Handbook for Families (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988). "There is a network of horseback riding programs for the physically challenged. Many people with MS find that riding builds back abdominal muscles, strengthens weak legs, and is a terrific source of self-confidence."
"Don't defy the diagnosis, try to defy the verdict."
- Norman Cousins
For Rita McGinley, 44, of Westmont, NJ, equestrian therapy helped many of her symptoms and also raised her spirits. She rode every week for about a year at the Pegasus Riding Academy in Philadelphia. Diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS four years ago, the registered nurse was forced to quit her job and later counseled patients at MSAA headquarters in Cherry Hill. Now undergoing intense physical therapy, she plans to return to equestrian therapy at the end of her current regimen. "It is so enjoyable. I ride bareback where there's just a blanket between me and the horse. I feel every movement of those four hooves, and I can feel the muscles in my pelvic floor moving. I have problems with my bladder, and after I ride I can feel much improvement," she says. "It's also great for strengthening and balance. There's a general feeling of well-being on a horse and that another living being is helping me. I love it."
Members of the Montville, NJ MS Support Group have saddled up for a therapeutic ride at the Handicapped Riding Center at West Orange, NJ, part of the Montclair Riding Academy, for the past nine years. Dedicated to the development of horseback riding as a therapeutic, recreational, and social activity for people with disabilities, the academy hosts these MS patients every Wednesday morning at its gorgeous grounds.
"We really don't know how it works. But from talking with different people, it seems that the horse helps them to move some of their muscles that they cannot move on their own. Most of the people with MS who come here think they are getting some benefit out of it. Some people insist on riding bareback so they have closer contact with the horse, but most people use the western saddle because it's safer and easier to use," says John Sinico, a spokesperson for center. "They love it. They swear by it. They also tell us that mentally it's a nice relief from their everyday worries. Instead of sitting home and feeling sorry for themselves they are out doing something. It's active, not passive. All in all, it's very beneficial."
Montville MS Support Group Leader Tom Hinkey says that some of the group members receive some relief from their spascity through riding, but they all get emotional benefits from it. By getting out and socializing and focusing on the horse, he says, they can forget about their problems and enjoy the day.
"If you don't have a fear of horses, it can probably help some of your symptoms. It's a lot of fun," says Ms. McGinley. "Whenever I rode, I would come home with a 'horse healthy high.' I miss it and can't wait to do it again once my current physical therapy is over."
- Christine Norris
PROMOTING A SAFE RIDE
The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) was founded in 1969 to promote and support therapeutic horseback riding programs throughout the U.S. and Canada. Comprised of more than 500 riding centers, the NARHA helps ensure safe instruction by administering a certification program for riding instructors. NARHA also offers an accreditation program to riding centers to promote excellence in providing therapeutically-valid services. The association provides riding centers with guidelines for selecting riders who are suitable and appropriate for therapeutic riding activities.
To learn more about therapeutic riding or for a list of centers in your area, contact NAHRA at:
PO Box 33150
Denver, CO 80233
You may also visit NARHA on the world wide web at: http://www.NARHA.org.