Substantial anecdotal evidence and some research indicate that therapeutic riding for people with disabilities has a positive impact on mental health. There is similar evidence showing that equine programs that include a psychotherapeutic component also have a positive impact. However, much of the existing research has many methodological problems, the most common being the absence of a comparison or control group. Therefore the present study investigated the mental health benefits of therapeutic riding for people with disabilities in comparison to therapeutic skiing for people with disabilities. The age range of participants was 16 to 70 years. They had a wide range of physical disabilities. In a quasi-experimental pre-test post-test design, all participants completed The Beck Depression Inventory, The Beck Anxiety Inventory, and The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. They also completed an adjective checklist, consisting of 26 items that focused on mood, emotion, and sense of self. Open-ended interviews were conducted with a subset of riders. In addition, the riders completed the Pet Attitude Scale (PAS-M). Scores on the PAS-M were not related to the three psychometric measures. Both groups improved on the three psychometric measures during the course of their respective programs. Although the improvement was statistically significant, it was not clinically significant. Contrary to the hypothesis, there was no difference in improvement between riders and skiers on these measures. However, on the adjective checklist riders felt more positive regarding 21 of the 26 items, and of those 21, eight were statistically significant. The interview data suggest that the riding program improves motivation, relationship building, and self-esteem. Although these results must be interpreted with caution, due to the exploratory nature of the checklist and the interviews, they suggest that equine activities have a positive impact for people with disabilities and may have a greater impact than other activities for some aspects of mental health. However, the positive impact may be related to general wellbeing rather than psychopathology per se.

Author: Margaret S. Schneider