When Ann Romney praised the benefits of equine therapy, the reaction was mixed in the community. Some criticized her for touting a therapy that is financially out of reach for the general population. Not many can afford horse-riding lessons, much less own horses as Romney did. On the other hand, being open with her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, she helped raise awareness as a public figure living with the disease. She has also made great contributions to research through the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases.
I was fortunate to receive a gift of a private horse-riding lesson. A thoughtful friend knew that I was suffering from depression and anxiety, in addition to MS, and during an especially difficult time she gave me this gift to see if it would help.
At my lesson, I soon learned why equine therapy is helpful to people with MS. It starts with being faced with a majestic creature weighing nearly a ton and trying not to fall off of him!
Those with mobility issues can restore balance, increase muscle strength, and improve fine motor skills, through equine therapy. From my head to my toes, I was physically engaged in riding the horse. I had to maintain balance with proper posture, hold firmly onto the reins, and use my thighs and legs to convey signals to the horse. Like I said, a big incentive was to avoid falling, as I was at least five feet off the ground.
LANGUAGE & COMMUNICATION
I had to use a clear voice to give commands, and even learn to cluck effectively to communicate with the horse. Other commands were physical: pulling on or loosening my hold of the reins, or squeezing the horse with my legs. This is akin to learning a new language; using new words, sounds, and gestures to communicate effectively. It is another way of retraining the brain.
MOOD & MINDFULNESS
Many people with MS suffer from depression. While pet therapy is the more common form of animal therapy, equine therapy can provide similar benefits of reducing feelings of anxiety and sadness, and improving social skills to alleviate isolation. Living in the moment and unplugging from distractions (like smartphones) promotes self-control and improves focus and attention. Lastly, horses are wondrous up close and to work with one is awe-inspiring.
Sadly, I had just that one lesson last year. Like many others, I cannot afford regular, or even seasonal, lessons. So I am immensely grateful to my friend who introduced me to the world of equine therapy, as it is an experience I look back on fondly.
Have you tried equine therapy? Are you interested in trying?
Kara was raised in New York, where she earned a BA from New York University and MSW from Columbia University. She uses her background in social work, of professionally helping others, to help herself through life with multiple sclerosis. She now lives in New Jersey with her family of four, keeps a food blog to stay creative, and manages an Etsy shop to keep productive.