Multiple Sclerosis: Walk, Talk, and Learn with Therapy Horses
There are multiple types of multiple sclerosis (MS), each one affecting people differently and making the disease unpredictable and rather difficult to manage. Stress, elevated temperatures, or lifestyle are all factors that can aggravate the condition. When someone living with MS experiences an attack or a relapse, it can significantly reduce their ability to be independent. This, in turn, makes it imperative for them to build a strong support network, skills for coping with stress, as well as an outlet for physical activity.
According to the National MS Society, hippotherapy, also referred to as horseback riding therapy, is the top-ranked alternative physical activity for individuals with MS, especially those with limited mobility. Hippotherapy is a form of physiotherapy that uses the movement of a walking horse to provide therapeutic benefits to the rider.
“Senses help map our motor responses, and we’ve found that by having people with MS get on a horse and move through space, perhaps at a faster pace than they can walk normally, we can effectively re-map and enhance their motor responses,” said Debbie Silkwood-Sherer, a physical therapist who uses hippotherapy in her practice.
One study in particular concluded that hippotherapy significantly improved balance, fatigue, and pain in individuals with MS who participated in the study. Marion Drache, chair of the executive board, Zentrum für Therapeutisches Reiten Johannisberg eV, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conducting high-level scientific studies on hippotherapy, was the lead author of the study. “Hippotherapy is different than regular horseback riding,” said Drache. She explained that the treatment is based on a neurophysiological approach and works by transmitting 3D movements from the horse to the rider.
How hippotherapy works
Hippotherapy sessions are given under the supervision of a physiotherapist who is specifically trained in this particular therapeutic approach. The trained horse is guided around in a slow and rhythmic manner by the physiotherapist, who uses the horse’s energy and movement to work with the rider (the individual receiving treatment). The rider does not actively control the horse, but rather they may perform a series of exercises. Since the horse’s movement imitates the human walking gait, the rider is forced to make small adjustments to their posture and maintain proper balance, thereby stretching and strengthening their core muscles. “It relaxes the people. Patients have to use balance while on a horse, which stimulates muscles and balance using different pathways,” said Andreas Gerber-Grote, director/dean at the School of Health Professions at Zurich University of Applied Sciences. Gerber-Grote was in charge of the design and application of the study.
Read on to learn more about therapy horses and how they can drastically improve the life of someone with MS.