Health & Wellness

Therapeutic Horseback Riding Helps Rein in MS

By Judy Heath
It was a very cold, windy day in a barn in Central Florida as a group of 15 people with MS and their care partners bundled up in heavy jackets and gloves, eager to learn about therapeutic horseback riding, also known as hippotherapy.
We had come to the Marion Therapeutic Riding Academy in Ocala, Fla., an area noted for its horse farms, for a 10-week course. This opportunity was provided to the members of the Marion County MS Support Group and The Villages MS Support Groups with funding from Teva Neuroscience. It was facilitated by MS Focus: the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation.
Kate Robbins, director of the therapeutic horseback riding program at MTRA, answered the first question on everyone’s mind that morning: “Why a horse?”
Of Course, a Horse
Both the shape of the horse’s back and the horse’s movements make it ideal for therapy. Sitting on the horse can stretch hip joints and reduce pain and spasticity in leg muscles. The horse’s pelvis moves like a human pelvis – up and down, back and forth and side to side. Therefore, the movement of the horse simulates the way we walk. While riding, the movement of the rider’s hips can increase limberness and muscle tone in the legs.
Riding can also improve coordination, balance, and posture, as well as strengthen core and leg muscles. Learning a new skill can build self esteem, create a sense of well-being, and improve self-control. Another positive element is the social interaction among other riders and between the rider and the horse.
Getting Started
Each hourlong session begins with the riders brushing their horses. (Horses have been matched to the rider’s ability.) This introduces the rider to the horse and is soothing for both rider and horse. After mounting their horse each rider is evaluated according to their abilities to determine if additional accommodations are needed.
The staff and volunteers work individually with riders who need additional assistance. For those who experience balance and/or spasticity problems, adjustments can be made to make them feel more secure. For example, a rider who leans to one side because of tightness in the muscles on that side of the body may wear a belt with handles on each side. This allows the side walkers to straighten the rider’s body. Most ride with English saddles, but those who have difficulty sitting on a saddle ride on a blanket without a saddle.
Although I was a bit fearful at first, I realized it is important that I trust the well-trained professionals (which includes the horse) to provide for my safety.
And They’re Off
Our class of five rode under a large, covered pavilion with a volunteer walking the horse on a lead and two side walkers. While we got used to the feel of the horse’s movement, we focused on the position of our body and maintained good posture. 
After circling the pavilion several times, we rode to the center of the ring, released the reins and began upper body exercises and stretches. This not only works the arms, but also encourages good posture and balance while strengthening the muscles of the torso. 
Throughout the class, the instructors coached us on our position in the saddle and stressed that each of us should progress at the level of our ability. If we had pain, muscles spasms, or other discomfort, we stopped riding while we adjusted our position or stretched the affected area to relieve the problem. 
In addition to working the upper body, we worked the muscles of the thigh and leg. As our horse approached a narrow board on the ground, we pushed our body off the saddle and then sat when the horse stepped over the beam. We repeated the exercise.
Lifting off the saddle by pushing into the stirrups worked the muscles of the thigh and leg. Another exercise for leg strengthening is the two-point position, which involves grabbing the horse’s mane, leaning forward over its neck and pushing our body off the saddle into a position similar to a jockey’s.
We learned to control our horses by using the reins and our knees and with commands of “Walk on,” “Back,” and “Whoa.” We practiced turning by navigating around a series of small cones placed in a line. 
When the class was over, my legs were tired, but I enjoyed the time I spent at MTRA and am proud of what I have accomplished. 
Judy Heath is co-facilitator of MSVP and can be reached at On behalf of the riders, she would like to thank the MSF, Teva Neuroscience and Jean McGrail, facilitator of the MCMS Group, for making this program possible. The MSVP web site is
(Last reviewed 2/2010)