Therapeutic Riding

We believe in an overall integrative approach and combines the Therapeutic Riding with leading and grooming for optimal well-being and empowerment.

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In collaboration with the Psychology Department of the University of the Free State, we focus on children with special needs or who are differently abled.

As Service Learning Collaboration partner of the University of the Free State, we also support the mutual search for sustainable solutions to challenges, and continually find new research and ground-breaking approaches to support individuals in their journeys to reach their highest potential and unique purposes in life.

When I am differently abled, I look up to people; When I am on a horse, people look up at me! – The Equistria Therapeutic Development Centre slogan

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What is Riding Therapy?

When sitting on a horse, your attention is involuntarily drawn into the moment, with countless positive stimuli and we all know that energy flows where attention goes. –M Olivier

Riding is a proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitative technique

Therapeutic riding is a broad term that is used to describe a number of different treatment strategies that use the horse as a medium of therapy.  Namely, hippo-therapy, developmental riding therapy, psycho-educational vaulting and remedial riding, and riding as a sport and a skill for the disabled/riding for the disabled.

Hippo-therapy is an extension of physiotherapy where the movement of the horse stimulates the passive client psycho-motorically, it falls under the medical model (Strauss, 1995).

Developmental riding therapy, uses the principles of hippo-therapy and many different neuro-developmental exercises to stimulate and emphasizes an individual’s psychosomatic entirely (Spink, 1993), it starts to move away from the pure medical model and begins to move into the field of remedial riding and psycho-educational vaulting.

Psycho-educational vaulting and remedial riding, use principles of neuro-development, remedial education and psycho-development in therapeutic strategies.  Typically these forms of therapy have developmental, psychological, social and educational goals.

Riding as a sport and skill for the disabled or riding for the disabled involves teaching riding to disabled individuals, being aware of the therapeutic benefit.  The Special Olympics and the Para-lympics provide competition opportunities.

The potential value of Animal Facilitated Therapy as a holistic therapy is huge; as are the possibilities for therapeutic riding.

The aim is not to expect miracles, but to remember that riding therapy can help the client to develop physically and psychologically with a better self-esteem, independence, increased motivation, a sense of achievement, affiliation, the need to be needed, play and humor, the stimulus to be busy and education.

Why it works?

The movement can, by its effect replace any means of therapy, but no other therapeutic measure is good enough to replace movement -Clemens Tissot

In essence, therapeutic riding is concerned with the effect of the horse’s movements on the rider.

This therapy works, because of the powerful movement-dialogue between man and horse.

All muscles of the human movement apparatus are mobilized during riding.  Thus the physical benefits, especially in therapeutic riding, for neuromuscular rehabilitation.

Velocity, centrifugal and centripetal forces as well as swinging movements are transmitted to the rider.  The simultaneous sideways and forward motions of the hips of the horse and rider produce alternating rotational movements.  This movement of the horse transfers movement patterns to the rider’s body center, to the lumbar spine and pelvic regions, duplicating the pattern man typically executes when walking upright (Gait specific trunk training).

The communication of all the horse’s swinging impulses is the key to hippo-therapy.  All these impulses stimulate movement responses that correspond to the physiologically correct movement patterns of man.  The rhythmic forward movement of the horse’s walk is never clockwork regular; the smallest deviations in the walk sequence – caused by the balancing movements of both the horse and rider – are registered as minimal changes and elicit altered movement responses in the client.

All movements are centrally controlled in the brain. The brain does not store isolated muscle functions, but rather movement sequences and thus movement patterns.  If movement patterns are lost centrally, the respective brain part cannot program new movements, despite its nerve cell reserves.  Through the loop of reciprocal peripheral-central influences, movement combinations can be centrally integrated.

The correct therapy process allows the client to perceive normal functional reactions and learns functional movement patterns.  When moving with the motion of the horse the client experiences a ‘handling’ through the horse.  The horse provides thus an opportunity for strong psychomotor stimulation.


The potential value of therapeutic riding with its psychological, social and physical benefits are huge…

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Psychological Benefits
  • Promotes relaxation & body awareness.
  • Builds self-confidence & encourages independence.
  • Promotes decision-making & forethought.
  • Improves memory & concentration.
  • Offers personal challenge & a sense of achievement.
  • Increases motivation & risk-taking in a safe environment.
  • Promotes a general feeling of well-being & fulfil the need to be needed.
  • Allows contact with animals & understanding their welfare.
  • Teaches the value of safety rules & discipline.
  • Fulfils a need to be in close proximity to living things.
  • Stimulates activity, as the habits of animals can have an orientating influence.
  • Serves as an educational tool.
Social Benefits
  • Develops language & communication skills.
  • Encourages reading & speech skills through games.
  • Stimulates social interaction.
  • Helps with clinical exercises in a pleasant environment.
  • Offers opportunities to participate & compete in sport.
  • Creates topics of conversation.
  • Promotes self-care & increase co-operation with care-givers.
  • Physical Benefits:
  • Improves balance & posture.
  • Develops hand-eye co-ordination.
  • Develops fine & gross motor skills.
  • Teaches sequencing of actions.
  • Offers new mobility & access to new areas.
  • Offers sensory stimulation through activities & surroundings.
  • Offers neuromuscular rehabilitation.
  • Increases life expectancy.
  • Helps with recovery from & coping with illness.
Additional Benefits for the Mentally Handicapped
  • Helps with perceptual motor skills as spatial concepts are easily taught through riding lessons.
  • Students get an awareness of ‘left’ and ‘right’, colours and parts of the horse and tack
  • The up-down movements of a trotting horse helps with gross motor skills, as well as spatial and directional awareness.
  • Disabilities can be a great handicap because restrictions are placed on the total life pattern. Exciting activities, like swimming and riding a bicycle, are usually forbidden. This protection can cause a sense of anger and frustration.
  • They are also frequently left out of competitive and sporting activities. They can often go through life with a sense of failure and frustration.
  • Horse riding can redress this balance; giving them a chance to succeed and build a relationship with a gentle, loving animal – a relationship that doesn’t need speech for communication.
  • The social occasion of a riding lesson offers opportunity for practicing good manners, learning to wait one’s turn, following instructions, learning non-verbal communication and learning to handle success and failure.
  • Riding also helps the disabled child to become as independent as possible, as well as achieving happiness and social acceptance.

According to ‘The Principles of Riding’ of the official instruction handbook of the German National Equestrian Federation:

  • ‘Handling and riding horses require certain qualities in the rider. These qualities become further established and developed as training progresses.
  • For this reason, riding can be a very valuable character-building experience, especially for children and young people.
  • Apart from a love for animals and the ability to empathise, the rider needs patience, self-control, fairness and discipline.
  • The rider is responsible for his equine partner. He must be constantly prepared to learn and he should be ready to look for faults first in himself and not in the horse.
  • More demanding levels of horsemanship require skill, strict body control and powers of concentration.

There are a few contra-indications

Pre-cautions to riding

If an individual has any of the following conditions, a physician should be consulted concerning the suitability of riding.

  • Spinal instability, including subluxation (partial dislocation) of cervical vertebrae.
  • Severe osteoporosis, involving brittleness of the bones and hence the possibility of fractures.
  • Seizures which are not controlled by medication.
  • Pathological fractures arising from a condition, such as osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bones)
  • Acute stages of arthritis.
  • Periods of exacerbation of multiple sclerosis.
  • Open pressure sores or wounds
  • The use of medication that induces physical states that makes riding risky and/or inappropriate.
  • Haemophilia, a congenital condition of the blood characterised by haemorrhages (bleeding).
  • The individual is taking anticoagulant medications (blood thinners).
  • Atlanto-axial instability.
  • Spondylolithesis (subluxation of the lower lumbar vertebra on the sacrum).
  • Coxarthrosis (degeneration of the hip joint) – riding causes too much stress on that joint.
  • Detached retina of the eye.
  • Acute herniated intervertebral disk, which may press on spinal nerve roots.
  • Complete quadriplegia, occurring as the result of a spinal cord injury.
  • Structural scoliosis greater than 30 degrees, excessive kyphosis (rearward increase of the curvature of the thoracic spine) or lorsosis (increased forward curvature in the lumber spine), or hemivertebra (a congenital defect in which one side of a vertebra is incomplete).
  • Dislocation, subluxation or dysplasia (abnormal development) of the hip(s) with significant restriction or asymmetry.
  • Any condition that the instructor, therapist or physician does not feel comfortable treating.
Scientific articles and Research
Dr Pravani Naidoo, did her Ph.D. on “The Influence of Therapeutic horse riding on the adaptive functioning and well-being of children with cerebral palsy”. For more information contact us from the contact page.

Therapeutic Riding Testimonials

Within her commitment to social justice, Ms Marie Olivier of Equistria believes in horses and the environment for therapeutic goals like psychomotor stimulation as a service to individuals with disabilities. Equistria Centre has been the base for the Therapeutic Horse-riding Service Learning project, involving Psychology Honours students, since 2005. Students work with pre-school children with neurodevelopmental diagnoses to stimulate psychomotor functioning stimulation and promote well-being. Ms Olivier believes in recognising and promoting strengths and capabilities in individuals with disabilities, thus providing invaluable training opportunities for both children with disabilities and students at Equistria.

In recognition of Outstanding Service, Commitment and Excellence in the field of Community Engagement, Equistria Centre has received the Vice-Rector’s Award for Community Engagement from the University of the Free State.


A graduate of University of the Free State (BSc Agriculture, 2000), Marie Muller Olivier was inspired to start Equistria based upon her experiences of the lack of alternate therapeutic services for her sister who was diagnosed with a disability at an early age. An individual with a strong commitment to social justice issues, Marie decided that the use of the horse and its environment towards therapeutic goals such as psychomotor stimulation was a service that the broader Bloemfontein community of individuals with disabilities should have access to. Focusing on riding and dressage for individuals with disabilities, she became a qualified Instructor with the South African National Equestrian Federation and started Equistria, a non-profit organisation located in Bainsvlei, Bloemfontein, in 2001. While Equistria initially served as a site for KOVSGEM students to conduct their community service hours, the organisation’s link to the University of the Free State quickly took on a more formalised nature. As of 2005, the Therapeutic Riding Community Service Learning Project involving Psychology Honours students who are registered for the PSHC 6804 Community and Social Psychology module, has been based at Equistria. Students work with pre-school children with a range of neurodevelopmental diagnoses from the Lettie Fouche School on a weekly basis, with the goal of stimulating psychomotor functioning and promoting well-being. In this way, student outcomes with respect to social responsibility, and awareness regarding the lives of individuals with disabilities are engaged with in an active manner. In keeping with a positive psychology orientation, Marie also believes in recognising and promoting strengths and capabilities in individuals with disabilities. Therapeutic horse riding at Equistria is invaluable for the training of our students, and for the community of children with disabilities in Bloemfontein.

Nomination for External Partner: Marie Muller Olivier

Equistria Therapeutic Development Centre

It hardly seems like 10 months ago when we first entered Equistria as Therapeutic horse riding volunteers. Since then it has been a whirlwind of excitement, learning and growing. Being able to put smiles on the children's faces was very fulfilling. Our experiences over the past year has deepened our passion and inspired us to dedicate our lives to the causes of community service. We are in awe at how fortunate we have been to be part of this community project. It has given us the tools and confidence to march forward into the next phases of our lives. A big thank you to all of those who were involved and made a contribution towards the success of this project.


UFS Psychology Honours student

I am a teacher at a prestigious all boys school in Bloemfontein. I have been involved with coaching sport (specifically cricket and rugby) for 15 years. The last 7 years I coached the school’s 1st XV rugby team, and the last two years I was in charge of the rugby program at the school. I also suffer from adult ADHD symptoms and a slight case of OCD. All of this, even though I am a lover of sport and competition, added stress to my life, which resulted in strain on all my relationships, both at work and in my personal life. Since I started interacting with the horses at Equistria Centre, things started to shift in that regard. Spending time, and working with the horses is as therapeutic for me as for any person (child) that I work with on the horse. The calming effect that this interaction brings to my life cannot really be explained in words… My ADHD symptoms are much more manageable than a year ago, and the OCD is almost non-existent. I will recommend this type of therapy to literally any person, of any capability and of any age. It has changed my life into much calmer existence.

AJ Mouton


A group of Dr Pravani Naidoo’s Psychology Honours students, at the University of the Free State, was honoured with the best postgraduate Service Learning award, involving the horse riding project, at a prize-giving function of the Faculty of the Humanities during 2016.

UFS Postgraduate students

Psychology department, UFS

Away from the hustle of city life lays a piece of land that graces any visitor with a sense of serenity. It compels you to inhale the earthy aroma that is laced with calm and a sense of peace. It settles the inner conflicts of the mind, frees you from your sense of urgency, and renews you with a vigour that is known to but the few who find their grounding in nature. And so this narrative drawing power has been the volitional force in the founding of a community service learning project based at Marie Olivier’s Equistria, called Therapeutic Horse Riding.

Under the supervision of Dr Pravani Naidoo from the Psychology Department at the University of the Free State, the project aims at the sensory-motoric, intellectual, and social stimulation of learners at the Lettie Fouché school. Through the involvement of Honours students in Psychology, the project has flourished to become an endeavour of growth that has mutually stimulated years of students and learners through its impact on the cognitive and affective grounds.

Through the establishment of familiarity, and shared moments that are real and unrefined in their genuineness, the students and learners conceive unique and deep-rooted bonds that have been seen to cause cascades of influence.

No experience is however separated from an emotional transfer between involved parties. The ultimate goal of any therapeutic horse riding session, is the mounting of, and activities on a horse by each of the children. The project strives to be a motivational drive in fostering a sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy. In this mounting lay the achievement that allows a child to barrel through the fear boundaries of insecurity, and discover their own unique sense of capabilities. And it is the hope of all supervisory personas, that this realisation and growth causes the shifts in their daily lives.

With its humble aims, its dedicated parties, and a staunch support of the gentle beasts that are the horses, the project is a developmental journey that moulds the perspective of the individual into a terrible need to give affection unconditionally and employ a service to the community that is the cause of many ripples through the casting of one stone.

Gernus Oosthuizen

UFS Psychology Honours student

Kids that never interact in the school setup, immediately start to come out of their shell at the horses and as their self-esteem and confidence grow they start to interact more and more in all areas. They are unconditionally accepted and free to be their best in these activities, which is a huge shift from the struggle to have to keep up with the norm as a differently abled individual in society. They are free to make choices within a structured frame, which is also very empowering.

These kids are sad when they cannot go to the horses, due to weather for example. They are easily motivated by the reminder of the upcoming horse activities and riding. Their whole demeanour is different before and after the horse sessions. They are happy, relaxed and very tired due to all the stimulation, which proof to have a visible positive effect.

Lettie Fouche

School teacher, Bloemfontein

During a therapeutic riding session, we asked a 13-year-old girl with Vater Syndrome to close her eyes, while she was riding on her horse. She smiled and said: “It feels as if I am walking!” This girl was paralysed from her waist down and bound to a wheelchair all her life.

13-year-old paraplegic rider

Equistria Therapeutic Development Centre

After 2 months at Equistria, people at work started to ask me funny questions like, “What happened in your life?” It was only then that I noticed how my way of being had changed dramatically in a positive way.

24-year-old rider with Spina Bifida

Equistria Therapeutic Development Centre