Horses have been utilized as a therapeutic aid since the ancient Greeks used them for those people who had incurable illnesses. Its earliest recorded mention is in the writings of Hippocrates who discussed the therapeutic value of riding. The claimed benefits of therapeutic riding have been dated back to 17th-century literature where it is documented that it was prescribed for gout, neurological disorder and low morale. In 1946 Equine Therapy was introduced in Scandinavia after an outbreak of poliomyelitis.
Hippotherapy as currently practice was developed in the 1960s, when it began to be used in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland as an adjunct to traditional physical therapy. The treatment was conducted by a physiotherapist, a specially trained horse, and a horse handler. The physiotherapist gave directives to the horse handler as to the gait, tempo, cadence, and direction for the horse to perform. The movement of the horse was carefully modulated to influence neuromuscular changes in the patient. The first standardized hippotherapy curriculum would be formulated in the late 1980s by a group of Canadian and American therapists who travelled to Germany to learn about hippotherapy and would bring the new discipline back to North America upon their return. The discipline was formalized in the United States in 1992 with the formation of the American Hippotherapy Association (AHA). Since its inception, the AHA has established official standards of practice and formalized therapist educational curriculum processes for occupational, physical and speech therapists in the United States.
In most cases, horses are trained and selected specifically for therapy before being integrated into a program. Therapy programs choose horses of any breed that they find to be calm, even-tempered, gentle, serviceably sound, and well-trained both under saddle and on the ground. As most equine-assisted therapy is done at slow speeds, an older horse that is not in its athletic prime is sometimes used.
Equine-assisted therapy programs try to identify horses that are calm but not lazy and physically suited with proper balance, structure, muscling and gaits. Muscling is not generally considered to be as important as the balance and structural correctness, but proper conditioning for the work it is to do is required. Suitable horses move freely and have good quality gaits, especially the walk. Unsound horses that show any signs of lameness are generally avoided.
There is some evidence that hippotherapy can help improve the posture control of children with cerebral palsy, although the use of mechanical hippotherapy simulators produced no clear evidence of benefit. A systematic review of studies on the outcomes of horseback riding therapy on gross motor function in children with cerebral palsy was concluded in 2012 with a recommendation for a "large randomized controlled trial using specified protocols" because, although positive evidence was indicated by nine high-quality studies surveyed, the studies were too limited to be considered conclusive.
We met with Rasheed Al Muhairi, the first and only Emirati enthusiast to develop the discipline in the UAE.
The hippotherapy is known for its beneficial results on human health for centuries. Slowly but it is also getting some interest in the Middle East, where the horse represents an important part of the heritage. How do you describe the situation of hippotherapy in the Gulf today? Is it something known to a large number of people?
Hippotherapy is not well known in the Arabian Gulf. There are weakly attempts to start even small centres or projects but till now no specialized centres largely known. The results are still weak. According to my interviews and meetings with people, they just know about horse riding but not Hippotherapy.
How did you start in this area? what was the starting point for your interest and what motivated you to continue?
In the beginning, I was to write a research about horse history, breeds, horse riding and the human benefit of horse riding. Those guided me to Hippotherapy. I found that Hippotherapy is a type of physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech-language pathology professionals using equine movement in their practices. The results of Hippotherapy were impressive.
What is the practical application of your knowledge (hippotherapy) for people in the UAE? Who can benefit from it and how?
I am still a therapy instructor in training. Special needs people are the targeted beneficiaries and other patients from all types. For example, autism spectrum disorder, muscular dystrophy, orthopaedic and multiple sclerosis. According to the unofficial statistics I got 14 000 cases in Abu Dhabi and over 800 000 patients in Saudi Arabia may get benefits
Tell us more about the infrastructure in UAE (hospitals, clubs and medical facilities) that are suitable for practising the hippotherapy and what is missing?
Clubs, hospitals and medical centres have the ideal environment and infrastructure but we miss specialized people in Hippotherapy and coordination between those centres and equestrian clubs.
How we can improve this form of therapy in the UAE? What the government and the private sector could and should do to make it accessible to a larger number of patients?
By implementing the accreditation of the educational programs in order to rehabilitate therapy instructors, I am ready to present these curriculums in the UAE and Arabian Gulf or the Middle East as a facility member in American Hippotherapy Association.
Being more specific, how horse riding can be beneficial to people?
The Movement of a horse is multi-dimensional and provides systems wide-impact on humans neurophysiology. - the horse movement is rhythmic, low amplitude, consistent and can be sustained over time. - The dynamic movement of the horse combined with dynamic environments leads to functional changes.
One of the sicknesses in which Hippotherapy deals effectively is weight control disorders, Hippotherapy helped me to control my weight from 192.8 kgs to the ideal weight which 78 kg.
Where do you see yourself 5 and 10 years from now?
I hope to see thousands of people get real benefits in 5 coming years and millions of people in the coming 10 years.