The Many Impacts of the Therapeutic Equine Program

July 31, 2018
Disability Services
Special Needs

By: Molly Murphy, Executive Director of Equine-Assisted Therapies of South Florida

Entering a physical therapy office or rehabilitation center can be a sterile experience. The harsh lighting, mats, balls and exercise equipment – all purposeful and important – can be uninspiring. While therapy inside a clinic is an important part of the rehabilitative process, there is an alternative option that may provide an equal bene t for both children and adults with special needs. A therapeutic horseback riding or an unmounted equine assisted program can help garner tremendously powerful results – physically, mentally and emotionally. 

Therapeutic riding and equine assisted programming offers a holistic approach to the development of the child or adult with special needs. The movement of a horse mimics the way an able-bodied person walks. During a riding session, a rider’s pelvis may move and rotate more than 2,000 times, which cannot be replicated on equipment in a gym or on a mat in a clinical setting. This movement allows dormant muscles to be activated, while also strengthening the core, improving posture and working on gross and fine motor skills. A child with Cerebral Palsy may experience relief from spasticity, as the horse’s movement gently helps lengthen and calm tight or overactive muscles. Another child with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) may develop an increased range of motion or neuro involvement, helping to speed the recovery process. For those with developmental disabilities, mounted activities can help reduce sensory defensiveness, improve listening skills and social interactions with peer groups. A 2014 study produced by the University of Pittsburgh found that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who participated in a riding program “showed greater social motivation, sensory seeking, and a reduction in sedentary behaviors, inattention and distractibility.” The horse’s movement in conjunction with learning riding skills improves the “whole person,” by helping riders develop confidence, social and life skills that are important in school and home life. Many riders have often compared their experience to freedom and the opportunity to be treated like their able-bodied peers. 

From an unmounted perspective, horses are just as powerful – mirroring the way humans feel and reflect, which helps individuals process trauma and life experiences. An Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) program, often performed in conjunction with talk therapy, helps clinicians and clients alike talk about experiences and outcomes, using horse and herd behavior as a tool. Programs like EFP can be utilized when working with individuals and children who have experienced hardship or trauma. Through an Equine-Facilitated Learning (EFL) program, students can learn elements of horse care and horse anatomy while also working on life skills and career development. Instructors utilize information such as an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to match educational elements with what is being taught in the classroom to help improve learning or socialization outcomes. 

Many therapeutic riding centers utilize the time and treasure of volunteers, who dedicate their time to serve programs large and small. Volunteers can assist in program execution by leading horses during a lesson, or sidewalking – walking alongside the horse, providing physical or emotional support, helping the rider to follow through with directives from an instructor. Many volunteers learn horsemanship skills that help build confidence and leadership skills that can impact all facets of life. While existing horse experience is always welcome, a center will provide a new volunteer with any training or education that they will need to begin serving. 

The true beauty of working with horses comes from the simple fact that they do not discriminate or judge. Horses teach individuals about themselves and allow their strength to be borrowed to achieve what may be thought of as impossible. Therapeutic horseback riding and equine activities level the playing eld – giving individuals with special needs an opportunity to focus on what they can do, instead of what they cannot. When a typical team sport may be out of reach, or the students at school don’t relate – the horse provides a relationship that is built on trust, ability and kindness. 

Molly Murphy is the Executive Director of Equine-Assisted Therapies of South Florida (EATSF) in Coconut Creek, Florida. EATSF is a Premier Accredited Center with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International. The organization offers mounted and unmounted programming – Therapeutic Riding, Hippotherapy, Equine-Facilitated Learning and Equine- Facilitated Psychotherapy. Visit for more information or to find a center in your area. 

1 From “Therapeutic Horseback Riding Outcomes of Parent-Identi ed Goals for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: An ABA Multiple Case Design Examining Dosing and Generalization to the Home and Community.” By M. Holm, J. Baird, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44, Issue 4, pp 937-947 

Share this post

Learn More About CSC Broward

Accessibility Statement

Our organization provides leadership, advocacy and resources to enhance the lives of the children of Broward County and empower them to become responsible, productive adults.

Stay Connected

Find A Program That Fits Your Needs

Other CSC-Funded Community Initiatives
2-1-1 Broward General Hotline | 2-1-1 Broward

2-1-1 Broward, an information & referral line, provides a 24-hour, comprehensive help line and support service for individuals seeking crisis intervention assistance and/or information and referrals to health and human services in Broward County. An impressive database of information is used to provide community callers with current, relevant information regarding a wide variety of services within the community. All calls are toll-free, confidential and anonymous from anywhere in Broward County.

Other CSC-Funded Community Initiatives
2-1-1 Broward Special Needs and Behavioral Health | 2-1-1 Broward

The 2-1-1 Hotline is Broward’s single source for information and referrals for children with behavioral health needs and disabilities. The hotline’s specialized staff focuses on helping parents, caregivers, agencies, and medical practitioners who serve the needs of children, find programming, support and hope. A case management component is also available for families in need of assistance accessing and navigating the special needs and behavioral health system of care.

Capacity Building
Capacity Building Mini Grants | Children's Services Council of Broward County

Infrastructure building support is provided to local child and family serving nonprofit organizations through our annual Capacity Buildings Mini Grants. Through a competitive grant process, local organizations are awarded funding for capacity building projects, professional business coaching and or fundraising support each year.
Primary POC: Adamma DuCille |

Other CSC-Funded Community Initiatives
Community Builders| Children's Services Council of Broward County

Improving Lives Through Collective Impact through the Broward County Children’s Strategic Plan

Health & Safety Initiatives
Cribs for Kids | Broward Healthy Start Coalition, Inc.

In 2003, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a report that estimated that the risk of infant suffocation increases 20-fold when infants and adults sleep in the same bed. In 2005, the AAP restated that co-sleeping is a growing concern and recommended that infants not share a bed during sleep.

Capacity Building
CSC Sponsored Trainings | Children's Services Council of Broward County

The CSC offers quality and affordable training workshops for professionals serving children and families in Broward County. Each session is led by instructors that are highly qualified and experienced in their field to provide an optimal learning environment. CEU’s are also offered for many of the completed courses. For a training calendar and to register, please visit our website at

Primary POC: Adamma DuCille |

Health & Safety Initiatives
Drowning Prevention | Florida Department of Health in Broward County

Drowning Prevention is a collaborative community effort driven by the Drowning Prevention Task Force. In 2009, the Children’s Services Council allocated funding to support a full-time coordinator housed at the Broward County Health Department who provides insight and accountability for the implementation of the Drowning Prevention Action Plan.
Task Force members create a culture throughout Broward County that infuses drowning prevention methodologies, practices, and messages throughout the community, directly impacting families with young children by:

The Faces of CSC

The impact Future Prep had on Sarah fomented her desire to give back to her community. Today, she is a Counselor for Memorial’s CSC-funded Youth Force program, helping other young people gain confidence and determine their own path for the future.
This program has touched me and made a difference in my life.
Thanks to the Children’s Services Council and the YMCA of Broward County, students have an opportunity to give a voice to issues that are important to them.