By Alexia Evripidou
In recent years Cyprus has seen an emergence of two ancient forms of complimentary healing techniques; hippotherapy and therapeutic riding. With a little help from their equine friends, Eagle Mountain Ranch and Artemis Riding Club and Therapy, are two horse schools spreading the merits of these treatments in the hope that they’ll become readily available to those in need across the island.
Both therapies are commonly used internationally for redressing varying mental and physical disabilities for all ages. They work in conjunction with other specialties including doctors, physiotherapy, occupational, speech and, or even psychotherapy in the treatment of a wide range of ailments including like cerebral palsy, autism, emotional disorders, stroke, sensory integrative dysfunction, traumatic brain injury, genetic disorders, arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
According to Cerebral Palsy.org’s website, hippotherapy is defined “as a form of physical, occupational and speech therapy that uses horse movement to develop and enhance neurological and physical functioning by channeling the movement of the horse.”
It’s conducted with a physiotherapist present and is particularly useful for people with cerebral palsy, neurological and muscular problems. It’s believed to improve a person’s strength, muscle control, balance, coordination, sensory integration and posture.
Therapeutic horseback riding is similar but differs in that specific riding skills are taught as part of the treatment plan as well as the development of a relationship between horse and rider.
Erini Patsalidi owner and manager of the family run Eagle Mountain Ranch in Paphos explains: “it’s recreational horseback riding which combines riding with other activities, for example a sensory trail ride. An occupational therapist is usually present. Ultimately, it contributes positively to the cognitive, physical, emotional, and social well-being of people with disabilities.”
It’s especially helpful for autism, Down-Syndrome and genetic disorders she said.
“Hippotherapy literally means ‘treatment with the help of horses’ from the Greek. Each treatment programme we create caters to each individual’s need. We liaise firstly with the client’s doctor then together with the other therapists we devise a bespoke therapeutic plan.”
Together, they work with the horse’s movement as a treatment tool within the rehabilitation programme to produce a combination of sensory, motor and neurological input.
Patsalidi studied horse management and training in England where she became involved with the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).
“Several years ago, a family with an autistic child visited our stables asking that their son start therapeutic horseback riding lessons,” she said, adding that it inspired Patsalidi to create a team of specially trained hippotherapy and therapeutic riding trainers.
Although there’s no official scientific back up yet, it’s claimed by many involved that therapeutic riding and hippotherapy contributes positively to the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of individuals with special needs.
Nearly three years ago, a boy called Joseph who’s now ten, began therapy at Eagle Mountain Ranch
“Joseph would initially refuse to do anything with a horse, but he now can stand on one confidently. Also, he wouldn’t let anyone brush his hair but after learning to brush his horse’s hair, he permits others to brush his,” said Patsalidi.
Founder Karoline Antoniades of Artemis Riding Club and Therapy in Limassol is also an avid supporter of the therapies.
Trained at Murfield Riding Therapy Centre in Scotland, Antoniadis has had experience working with many people with different mental health disabilities. “Hippotherapy and therapeutic riding is about getting to know the horse and its power, spending time with it, grooming it and eventually learning to become an independent rider,” she said. “This gives people amazing strength and power to deal with daily issues, anxiety stress, depression, low self-esteem etc.”
Antoniades gives an example of a client of hers who was training to be a rhythmic gymnast. She explains how the girl’s teacher was tough on the child, often sitting on top of her and forcing the girl to stretch more. This caused the girl’s left leg to go numb. Multiple doctors visits resulted in nothing until a doctor in Israel suggested the child try therapeutic riding.
“It was amazing work and the little girl’s leg went back to normal after six months of not being able to walk on it,” she said. “We also worked with a little boy who had a serious back problem. He was born with a spine weakness and was not able to walk properly. Riding therapy helped lift his mood and improve his walking by strengthening his back muscles which supported him to walk better. There are many more examples.”
Therapeutic riding and hippotherapy became what it is today thanks to Lis Hartel. Paralysed below the knees due to polio at age 23, Hartel went on to win a silver medal for dressage in the 1952 Olympic Games with the help of therapeutic riding therapy. She became the inspiration for the first therapeutic riding centres in the UK, Scandinavia and the Therapeutic Riding Association of Greece (TRAG) which established in 1992.
The horses are an integral part of these therapies, they’re carefully selected and specifically trained, all share one imperative trait; patience.
“Horses create a dynamic, three-dimensional movement that cannot be reproduced in a traditional clinic setting,” explains Patsalidi. This therefore enables the rider’s body to move rhythmically in a manner similar to a human gait and together with the animal’s warmth and character, can help improve flexibility, symmetry and joint mobility and emotional connection.
“A client is aware either logically or instinctively not fall off the horse, this forces them to use focus and balance. When a child cannot walk, the horse walks for him and the child’s body follows those movements, therefore helping to build the necessary muscles that will enable them to walk; the physiotherapist will then continue building the muscles. If a person is angry, the horse feels this anger and can become agitated, the rider must then learn to relax for the horse to accept him and work together.”
Hippo therapy sessions are generally 30 minutes long.
“During a session three professionals are involved, one therapist, and two volunteers; i.e. a horse leader and a side walker,” says Patsalidi. Throughout, the therapist will ask the rider to change positions and alter the speed and direction of the horse in order to challenge the client’s balance and therefore broaden the extremity range of motion, ultimately helping to improve postural muscles. “By adjusting the speed of the horse, bouncing occurs, therefore demanding a greater response from the rider to balance and also an increase in their sensory awareness”.
As part of therapeutic riding, Patsalidi uses a riding sensory trail. This involves bright coloured objects, soft balls with animal faces, musical instruments and scents in order to provide further sensory stimulation.
There are no age limits to these therapies; ages start from two and upwards.
Using horses as a therapeutic aid is not a recent revelation, dating back as the ancient Greeks. There’s evidential literature dating back to 17th century which documents the prescription of what is today labeled ‘therapeutic riding’ in order to help combat illness such as depression, neurological disorders and even gout.
“There is no official governing body here in Cyprus, so we associate with TRAG. We attend workshops and seminars several times a year for continued training and hope one day to bring over the professionals from TRAG to offer workshops to people here in Cyprus,” says Patsalidi.
Eagle Mountain Ranch, Paphos: http://www.horseridingpaphos.com
Artemis Riding Club, Limassol: https://www.facebook.com/artemisridingtherapy/