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Horse riding is available for the Intellectual Impaired in South Africa as both a sport, hobby and as two forms of therapy, known as Horse riding Therapy and Hippo Therapy. It is available for all ages and a variety of different Intellectual Impairments and is a one of the sports that are available for the Intellectual Impaired at the Special Olympics.

There are many benefits of animal-assisted activities and therapies, they have been recognized for a long time, but the specific benefits of interacting with horses may be less well known. Working with horses can have a major physical and emotional impact on people with a wide variety of issues and Intellectual Impairments. These benefits include:

  • Recreational
  • Therapeutic Benefits 
  • Mental Benefits
  • Physical Benefits
  • Encourages Socializing

Types of Intellectual Impaired who can benefit from horse riding

Individuals with a wide variety of Intellectual Impairments, can benefit from horse riding and compete in it, as a sport in equestrian events, or just for fun as a hobby. The types of Intellectual Impairments that can benefit, include:horse riding magazine

  • Attention Deficit Disorder
  • Autism
  • Brain Injuries
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Developmental Delay/Cognitive Delay
  • Down Syndrome
  • Emotional Disabilities
  • Learning Disabilities

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Equestrianism or Equestrian is the sport of horseback riding and includes the skill of riding, driving, steeplechasing or vaulting with horses. This broad description includes the use of horses for, recreational activities, artistic or cultural exercises, and competitive sport. It is a competitive sport in the Special Olympics and became a part of the Paralympic Games for the first time in 1996 in Atlanta, but not for Intellectual Impairments. At the Paralympics, it is only available for individuals with Visual & Physical Impairments. Events are mixed and grouped according to their functional profiles.

Athletes can compete in dressage events, a championship test of set movements and a freestyle test to music. There is also a team test that involves three to four members.

Riders are judged on their display of horsemanship skills and are permitted to use devices such as dressage crops, connecting rein bars, rubber bands and other aids.


Riders are assigned to five different sport classes. Para-equestrian dressage riding consists of five sport classes called ‘grades’ for athletes with physical and visual impairments. Lower grades indicate more severe activity limitations and higher grades include athletes with less severe activity limitations.

Physical impairments

Grade Ia - Athlete have severe impairments affecting all limbs and the trunk. The athlete usually requires the use of a wheelchair in daily life.

Grade Ib – Athletes here have either a severe impairment of the trunk and minimal impairment of the upper limbs or moderate impairment of the trunk, upper and lower limbs. Most athletes in this class use a wheelchair in daily life.

Grade II - Athletes in this class have severe impairments in both lower limbs with minimal or no impairment of the trunk or moderate impairment of the upper and lower limbs and trunk. Some athletes in this class may use a wheelchair in daily life.

Physical or visual impairment

Grade III - Athletes in grade III have a severe impairment or deficiency of both upper limbs or a moderate impairment of all four limbs or short stature. Athletes in grade III are able to walk and generally do not require a wheelchair in daily life. Grade III also includes athletes having a visual impairment equivalent to B1 (very low visual acuity and/ or no light perception).

Grade IV - Athletes here have a mild impairment of range of movement or muscle strength or a deficiency of one limb or mild deficiency of two limbs. Grade IV also includes athletes with visual impairment equivalent to B2 (higher visual acuity than visually impaired athletes) competing in the grade III sport class and/ or a visual field of less than five degrees radius.

Athletes with the following impairments are eligible to compete in para-equestrian:

  • Impaired muscle power
  • Athetosis
  • Impaired passive range of movement
  • Hypertonia
  • Limb deficiency
  • Ataxia
  • Leg length difference
  • Short stature
  • Visual impairment

Equestrian in South Africa

There are a number of Horse riding or Equestrian organizations or clubs available for the disabled in South Africa, including:

  • The South African Equestrian Association-SAEA
  • South African Riding for the Disabled Association S.A.R.D.A.


The SAEF are the representative body for Equestrian Sport in South Africa registered with SASCOC and the representative for South Africa at the FEI. As the officially registered federation under SASCOC, it is governed by the rules and regulations of the Sports Act as well as the rules and regulations of the FEI.

As the representative for equestrian sport with the regulatory bodies, the SAEF are responsible for:

Adherence of the Sports Act, rules and regulations of SASCOC and Discipline Constitutions in the Republic of South Africa by its members.

The SAEF are also responsible for supporting members in obtaining Protea Colours. The biggest task currently faced is the support towards Disciplines with funding to enable development of the sport.

South African Riding for the Disabled Association S.A.R.D.A.

South African Riding for the Disabled Association S.A.R.D.A. was established in Cape Town in 1973 by Belinda Sampson and Joy Finlay. At first they started with one horse and a monetary donation, but because the results were so successful, the method of therapeutic riding became popular, with more and more people wanting to try to improve different abilities. Today, there are two centres in Cape Town (in Constantia and Noordhoek) and even branches in Durban, Gauteng, Pietermaritzburg and Port Elizabeth.

SARDA’s aim is to provide the opportunity of therapeutic and recreational horse riding for disabled people so that they might benefit in all aspects of their mental, physical and social lives. teach horse riding to people living with disabilities. Special needs schools from all over Cape Town bring learners on a weekly basis. We also hold classes for children and adults who don't attend these schools.

SARDA is affiliated to the RDA in the United Kingdom and the Federation for Disabled Riding International.
SARDA Cape Town practises its work according to the RDA principles which means teaching people living with disabilities to ride, done by qualified Riding for the Disabled instructors, who may or may not be therapists. Ultimate goal is that the RIDERS are taught to ride independently as possible. The riders benefit physically from the movement of the horse and from many other aspects of riding including psycho-social, self-esteem and competing with peers on equal footing.

SARDA encourages equestrians and therapists to learn about the RDA and Hippotherapy practises. Equine Assisted Therapy (ETASA) offer training in Hippotherapy, while SARDA offers training in the practice of RDA. If you are interested in becoming a teacher in either area of expertise, please see our SARDA Volunteers Page for more information. Alternatively, click on link provided to view the website of ETASA.

SARDA at Sleepy Hollow practises Hippotherapy using Physio, Occupational or Speech Therapists in treating children and adults living with disabilities, using the horse as a treatment modality. The ultimate goal is to achieve therapeutic goals and aims. Hippotherapy literally means “treatment with the help of the horse” from the Greek word, “hippos” meaning horse.

Special needs schools from all over Cape Town bring learners on a weekly basis. We also hold classes for children and adults who don't attend these schools.

The minimum age for our riding lessons is 6 years.

How to join

Anyone can apply to be put onto our waiting list. Once you have downloaded the application form please take your time to fill it in. Then return it to us, our Senior Intructor will assess the form and will inform you if your application was successful.

Once your name has been added to the waiting list you are eligible to be considered for any spot that might become available. Our senior instructor matches the applications to the opening according to age and disability/ability.

For Schools to become part of SARDA's Riding Program please download the School Form once you filled it in please and send it to: or fax it to 0866953409. Application form for: South African Riding for the Disabled Cape Town Branch. 

Hippo Therapy & Horse Riding Therapy 

Hippotherapy is sometimes referred to as equine-assisted activity or equine-assisted therapy. It is an effective form of therapy for a range of physical, emotional, and cognitive special needs. Today, hippotherapy is recognized as one of the most progressive forms of therapy. As the number of people seeking treatment in non-clinical settings has increased, hippotherapy has become as popular as it is effective. Using the movement of the horse as the strategy of choice has resulted in improved functional outcomes for a wide variety of patients.

Hippotherapy is defined as the use of the horse’s movement as an approach to address emotional, psychological, and physical impairments, functional limitations, and disabilities in patients.  Hippotherapy may be conducted by someone who is a licensed or registered physical therapist, occupational therapist, or speech-language pathologist.

A therapist can become eligible to take the Hippotherapy Classes if they have passed the Hippotherapy Clinical Specialty Certification Examination. The therapist is eligible to take the certification by:

  • practicing for at least three years (or 6,000 hours)
  • and has had at least 100 hippotherapy hours over a period of three years.

Once the Therapist has passed the Hippotherapy Clinical Specialty Certification Examination, the therapist is qualified for five years.

In hippotherapy, the horse influences the rider rather than the rider controlling the horse. The rider actively responds to the horse’s movement, which the therapist directs. In addition, a volunteer handler who is specially trained in working with hippotherapy horses is usually on hand. The therapist analyzes the client’s responses, and adjusts the treatment accordingly.

From the beginning, the rider learns balance, coordination, and self-assurance while receiving muscle stimulation. Some of the other physical benefits of hippotherapy may include:

  • Improved posture.
  • Strengthened muscles.
  • Improved range of motion.

The rhythm of the horse’s gait is much like that of the human walk, and therefore therapeutic riding and Hippotherapy is beneficial for a number of physical disabilities. It is most commonly used for muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, amputation, paralysis, and spina bifida.

The difference between riding therapy and hippotherapy is that the therapists who practise hippotherapy are medically trained, like physiotherapists, occupational therapists or speech therapists. They practise hippotherapy with a specific aim, whereas, riding therapists hope to improve general psychological well-being.

Both hippotherapy and riding therapy are beneficial for concentration and self-awareness. The rhythm, strength and warmth of the horses make the disabled feel comfortable. This therapy process includes teaching the individual horse riding skills.

A child’s mental attitude will also improve with horse-riding therapy. Over and above developing the potential of the individual’s feelings of self-confidence, self-esteem, and independence are nurtured as seen in current practice. Horse-riding also teaches self-discipline, daring, control and techniques which are applicable in many other situations.

In addition to the physical benefits, there are many psychological benefits. The ability to handle the horse often inspires self-confidence, responsibility, and teamwork. The rider often learns to trust through the horse-and-rider bond, as communication with the animal increases and improves.

Therapeutic riding also helps teach problem-solving and decision-making skills because the rider has to conquer his or her own physical, psychological, or emotional limitations in order to effectively communicate with the horse. In addition, the rider can experience a sense of accomplishment and take pride in his or her teamwork with the horse.

Therapeutic riding is also an effective form of therapy for cognitive and psychological disabilities.  It can be used for such disorders as mental retardation, Down syndrome, autism, ADD, ADHD, and dyslexia.


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