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It is not clear when riding for the disabled became a specialized field, but history records the physical and emotional benefits of horseback riding as early as the days of the ancient Greeks. Between 460 – 377 B.C., Hippocrates wrote a chapter on “Natural Exercise” and mentioned riding. In 1569, Merkurialis of Italy wrote on “The Art of Gymnastics” mentioning the horse and riding and in 1780, in France, Tissot wrote in his book, “Medical and Surgical Gymnastics,” about riding at the walk as the most beneficial gait.

At the turn of this century, England recognized riding for the disabled as a beneficial form of therapy and offered riding therapy for wounded soldiers at the Oxford Hospital during WWI. By the 1950's, British physiotherapists were exploring the possibilities of riding as therapy for all types of handicaps. When Liz Hartel of Denmark won the silver medal, in 1952, for Grand Pris Dressage at the Helsinki Olympic Games---despite her paralysis from polio---medical and equine professionals began to take notice and centers for therapeutic riding began forming in Europe.

Therapeutic riding centers developed throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States during the 1960’s. During this same period, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland were at the forefront of developing and establishing “hippotherapy” (physical therapy on horseback, applying the horse as therapist) as a medical model of equine-assisted therapy. In 1969,The British Riding for the Disabled Association was founded with the enthusiastic support of the Royal Family. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) was also founded in 1969 to serve as an advisory body to the various riding for the disabled groups across the United States and its neighboring countries.

By the 1970’s, physical therapists in the United States began to develop treatment uses for the movement of the horse. In 1987, a group of 18 American and Canadian therapists went to Germany to study classic hippotherapy and began developing a standardized hippotherapy curriculum. Over the next 5 years, the National Hippotherapy Curriculum Development Committee undertook development of standardized curricula on hippotherapy. In 1992, the American Hippotherapy Association (AHA) was formed and in the following year was approved as the first Section of PATH Intl. (formerly NARHA). The AHA established therapist registration and set standards of practice for hippotherapy in 1994. The American Hippotherapy Certification Board was established in 1999 and the first Hippotherapy Clinical Specialist (HPCS) examination was administered.

Today, equine assisted therapy is practiced in some form in most countries throughout the world. Disabled riders demonstrate their remarkable accomplishments in national and international sports riding competitions. Hippotherapy has developed as a medical field recognized by most major countries. In the United States, medical doctors, psychiatrists, physical and occupational therapists, speech therapists and teachers all refer students to riding programs for the disabled. PATH Intl. membership provides safety guidelines and training and fosters professional, ethical and therapeutic equine activities through education, communication, standards, and research for people with and without disabilities.

Learning to ride demands muscular involvement at all times without the clinical setting of therapy and provides a natural incentive to work at exercies. Wheelchairs and walkers are left behind and a new freedom of movement and independence are discovered.

Riding benefits are increased by including specific exercises and games that involve stretching, motor planning, coordination, and perceptual exercises. Riding increases self-confidence, and for many riders self-image, as they take part in a sport that many of their able-bodied peers can not do. Benefits from riding spill over into other areas of life as well.
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