April 17, 2023
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Hippotherapy provides ongoing sensory and motor input and can help improve posture and balance in people with MS. It may also help with fatigue.
Welcome to Ask Ardra Anything, an advice column about life with MS from blogger Ardra Shephard. Ardra has lived with MS for 2 decades and is the creator of the award-winning blog Tripping on Air, as well as the host of AMI-tv’s new series, “Fashion Dis.” Got a question for Ardra? Reach out on Instagram @ms_trippingonair.
As an influential voice in the multiple sclerosis (MS) community, I feel like I’m not supposed to admit this, but I do not enjoy physical therapy (PT). In my experience, PT is as exhausting as a standard workout, but my heart rate never gets high enough to cash in on an endorphin rush.
The only time I get a rosy glow from PT is when I’ve run out of steam and feel frustrated because I can’t possibly manage one more toe curl. I resent having to work incredibly hard just to slow down my MS progression. My biggest beef with physical therapy, though, is that it’s tedious. To me, PT is capital-B Boring.
Before I get fired from writing this article, let me state that technically I am pro-physiotherapy. Physical therapy is good for my MS, and it might also be good for yours. Please don’t let my rotten attitude discourage you from taking advantage of the many ways in which PT might help improve your MS symptoms.
I’m not giving up on PT, but I like to keep an ear to the ground (I spend a lot of time down there anyway) for alternative, more interesting ways to restore and/or maintain some basic neuromuscular function.
Naturally, when I first heard about hippotherapy for MS, I was intrigued, even if the term “hippotherapy” itself has a bit of a snake oil or beesting therapy ring to it.
Hippos for MS? I dug a little deeper and discovered that, according to the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association (CanTRA), “hippo,” in this case, actually means “horse.” (If you say so, CanTRA, but if hippo means horse, then what are we supposed to call hippos?)
All horsing around aside, hippotherapy involves using the natural gait and movement of a horse to provide ongoing sensory and motor stimulation, which helps improve balance, mobility, and posture in humans, and there’s nothing boring about that.
Even so, I assumed hippotherapy could only help people with less progressive MS than my own. As a full-time mobility aid user whose right foot only leaves the ground with significant help from my arms or because I’ve tripped over something, I thought I was too disabled to even consider hippotherapy.
I was wrong!
Hippotherapy can be done with physical, occupational, or speech therapy and with people with a range of disabilities.
My first time, it felt like I’d been asked to do a trust fall onto an 800-pound beast. Getting comfortable mounting and dismounting a horse has been a boost to my confidence in terms of what my body can do!
In the United States, hippotherapy is distinguished from adaptive riding (sometimes called therapeutic riding). Adaptive riding instructors often have specialized training to provide riding lessons for people with disabilities, but they aren’t necessarily licensed therapists or certified by a hippotherapy association.
In the U.S., the American Hippotherapy Association maintains a database of certified hippotherapy clinicians. Meanwhile, Canada has 80 certified therapeutic riding centers that promote “challenge, achievement, and empowerment” for riders with disabilities.
I found a qualifying stable near my home and submitted an application. I needed medical clearance from my physician and had to fill out an intake evaluation to determine whether or not therapeutic riding would be a good fit for me — and whether I would be a good fit for the horses.
While requirements vary from center to center, the horses where I ride are on the small side, and riders must weigh less than 160 pounds. Once I was approved, I needed to purchase a helmet to get started. The fact that therapeutic riding comes with accessories felt like a bonus!
As a novice, I have weekly hour-long riding sessions facilitated by a riding instructor, plus two side walkers who provide stability and a horse handler. The facility is equipped with a lift to help people like me, who have lower-extremity weakness or paralysis, to get safely on the horse. A platform elevates me so that my feet are about the height of the horse’s belly. Then the instructor supports my weight while a volunteer lifts my leg and swings it over the horse.
If this sounds scary, it is! At least, it was the first time — it felt like I’d been asked to do a trust fall onto an 800-pound beast. Getting comfortable mounting and dismounting a horse has been a boost to my confidence in terms of what my body can do!
The list of health benefits that therapeutic riding provides is long. Meeting new people, interacting with other disabled riders and the many volunteers, hanging out with horses, and learning a new skill are all activities that have boosted my mood, mental health, and overall sense of wellness.
Sitting upright in a saddle is basically the 1 hour a week when I am not only mindful of my posture, but my posture is actually excellent. Riding gives me an opportunity to challenge and improve my balance and coordination and potentially reduce my MS-related fatigue. Therapeutic riding is a workout, and even if my heart rate doesn’t quite make it into the cardio zone, I do get a rosy glow during winter rides in the barely heated arena.
Therapeutic riding is a novel experience that helps my MS. Alas, hippotherapy and/or therapeutic riding is not a replacement for physical therapy, and I can’t in good conscience give up on toe curls just yet. However, therapeutic riding is a fantastic complement to conventional PT.
Part of committing to an exercise or movement routine is finding the activities that you enjoy, and that will enhance your quality of life. Talk with your doctor if you think therapeutic riding might be beneficial for you.
Medically reviewed on April 17, 2023
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