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Types of Intellectually Impaired who can benefit from horse riding

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

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

Attention Deficit Disorder

Children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have difficulties with attention and self control of behavior. Horseback riding requires attention to the instructor and the horse. Children who participate in a riding program will be taught sequential steps for learning to control their horse and becoming more independent. Riding lessons can be modified in length to accommodate for decreased attention span in the beginning of the program. Children with ADD or ADHD may also benefit from participation in vaulting programs. Vaulting requires attention and timing for approaching the horse on the lunge line as well as mounting and dismounting. In vaulting, children work in groups requiring self control and team work.


Children and adults with autism participate in a variety of programs including riding, driving, vaulting, hippotherapy, and equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP).  Both equine-assisted activities such as riding or vaulting and equine-assisted therapy such as hippotherapy or psychotherapy can impact the life of a person with autism. 

In 2008 a study on children with autism participated in a 12 week therapeutic horseback riding  program. Two instruments were used to measure social functioning before and after the intervention: the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) and the Sensory Profile (SP). They found the children with autism who participated in the therapeutic horseback riding program improved in sensory integration and directed attention as compared to the control group.

In 2007 a study on children with mild, moderate and severe autism participated in a 10 week speech therapy session using hippotherapy. The children were evaluated using the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) as well as attention to task and number or session goals met. All children showed progress on at least one of the following four CARS subtests: relating to people, listening behaviors, verbal communication and nonverbal communication.

Brain Injuries

People with brain injuries can experience multiple symptoms related to their injury, this includes Intellectual Impairments. They may participate in a variety of programs depending on their abilities and goals. People with a brain injury who are seeking to pursue a new recreational outlet may benefit from riding or driving programs. Participants develop skills needed to direct their equine partners through obstacles, cones courses, or on trail rides.

Cerebral Palsy

People of all ages with cerebral palsy may enjoy interacting with horses. Some individuals with Cerebral Palsy also have Intellectual Impairments. Children can learn a sport such as riding to share with their peers. Adults may treasure riding as a life-long leisure activity. Horseback riding requires skills including good posture, coordination, and balance to direct the horse. Riders with cerebral palsy may progress from riding with sidewalkers to riding independently.  Some people with cerebral palsy may prefer to learn carriage driving and may even be able to drive from their own wheelchair in a specially designed carriage.  

A large amount  of research in equine-assisted therapy has involved children with cerebral palsy.  In 2009, test were done that measured head and trunk stability changes in children with cerebral palsy after 12 weeks of hippotherapy treatments provided by an occupational or physical therapist. The research team used a motorized barrel and video motion capture to challenge and measure the changes in motor control. The children showed very significant improvements in control of their trunks and heads at the end of the intervention period and maintained improvements after a 12 week period without treatment.

Developmental Delay/Cognitive Delay

SA.R.D.A. centers are able to provide a variety of recreational programs that reflect personal preferences and choices for the person with developmental delays. Learning horseback riding skills includes leisure and recreational activities alone and with others, riding socially with others, taking turns, extending the time of the riding lesson and expanding one's repertoire of skills towards independent riding. Some persons may choose to compete in programs such as the Special Olympics.

Down Syndrome

Children and adults with Down syndrome may participate in equine-assisted activities or equine-assisted therapy if atlantioaxial instability (AAI) has been ruled out with current x-rays and/or the participant has no signs or symptoms of this condition per their physician.  

In 2010 11 weeks of hippotherapy was provided to two children with Down Syndrome and measured changes in postural control.  The Gross Motor Function Measure (GMFM) and accelerometry were the instruments used to measure. Improvements in gross motor behavior (particularly walking, running, and jumping) were revealed by the GMFM. The overall accelerometry data demonstrated interesting adaptive responses to the postural challenges induced by the horse.

Emotional Disabilities

Many people with emotional disabilities are able to enjoy equine based programs that promote physical activity and social interaction. SA.R.D.A. programs are designed for safety and close supervision as well as fun, interesting activities.

Learning Disabilities

Participants in SA.R.D.A. programs are presented information about riding and driving skills and horsemanship in a variety of methods.  People with learning disabilities have the chance to learn through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic methods while learning to ride or drive a horse. They may be motivated to learn more about horses then they are in their school classroom. The horse’s response to the aids given by the rider or driver is natural positive reinforcement and helps participants build skills.