Research Article: ‘When he’s up there he’s just happy and content’: Parents’ perceptions of therapeutic horseback riding

Date Published: July 26, 2017

Publisher: AOSIS

Author(s): Lauren Boyd, Marieanna le Roux.


There is limited global and South African research on parents’ perceptions of therapeutic horseback riding (THR), as well as their perceptions of the effect of the activity on their children with disabilities.

To explore and describe parents’ perceptions and experiences of THR as an activity for their children with disabilities.

Twelve parents whose children attend THR lessons at the South African Riding for the Disabled Association in Cape Town were asked to participate in a semi-structured interview. The qualitative data obtained from the interviews were first transcribed and then analysed using thematic analysis to establish parents’ perceptions of the THR activity.

The main themes that emerged included parental perceived effects of THR on children, parents’ personal experiences of the services, and parents’ perceived reasons for improvements in the children. The participating parents indicated that THR had had a positive psychological, social and physical effect both on the children participating in the riding, as well as on the parents themselves.

According to parents, THR plays an important role in the lives of children with various disabilities and in the lives of their parents. The results of the study address the gap in the literature regarding parents’ perceptions of THR.

Partial Text

The domestication of animals occurred more than 12 000 years ago (All, Loving & Crane 1999), and since then humans and animals have had a longstanding beneficial relationship. From allowing psychiatric patients to care for animals as a replacement for restraints and drugs (Jalongo, Astorino & Bomboy 2004), to using as companion animals upon recommendation by Florence Nightingale for chronically ill patients (All et al. 1999), animals have shown enormous potential to help humans. These benefits have led to the use of animals in two main types of interventions: Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) and Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) (Lentini & Knox 2009). The use of horses falls into both of these types of interventions, namely equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP, a form of AAT), hippotherapy (HT, a form of AAT), and therapeutic horseback riding (THR, a form of AAA). EAP uses horses to obtain psychotherapeutic outcomes (Lentini & Knox 2009; Schultz, Remick-Barlow & Robbins 2007), which include improved self-esteem and self-confidence (Kersten & Thomas, as cited in Schultz et al. 2007). To facilitate EAP, a mental health professional and an equine professional are required to be present and involved in the therapy (Kruger & Serpell 2006).

Three main themes emerged from the data: (1) parents’ perceived effects of THR on their children with disabilities, (2) parents’ personal experiences of the service itself and (3) parents’ perceived reasons for improvements in their children.

The aim of the current study was to explore parents’ perceptions and experiences of their children’s involvement in THR. Twelve parents, each with a child participating in THR activities at SARDA, participated in this study. Three main themes emerged from the analysis of the interviews.

The sample of the present study was homogenous, which could have limited the richness of the perceptions of the parents. Only parents whose children attended lessons at SARDA in the afternoon and parents who could receive the emailed request for participation from the stable manager were included. This, therefore, excluded potential economically disadvantaged participants. The sample size was also not large enough to reflect the South African population. Only 1 man and 11 women participated. These limitations need to be attended to in future research. A longitudinal study of children who have been participating in the riding programme for more than one year is advised. As mentioned in the study, participants’ children had been part of the riding programme for between 6 months and 13 years. A longitudinal study would potentially show that an extended period in the programme yields more beneficial and more specific outcomes than a shorter stint. A set of questions may also be too restrictive in eliciting parents’ experiences of THR for their children; it is advised that one or two open-ended questions guide future interviews in studies of this nature, allowing for more free flow of conversations, thoughts and experiences.

The findings of the current study highlight the perceptions of parents whose children are involved in a THR programme at SARDA, a therapeutic riding association in South Africa. As seen from the results, parents perceived the THR programme as having played an important role in the lives of their children. The parents reported on the favourable effects in the physical, psychological and social domains. Furthermore, the parents believed their children gained enjoyment and that their quality of life improved. The results are supported by the existing literature. The study also contributed to narrow the gap in the literature on parents’ perceptions of their children’s involvement in THR – in South Africa as well as globally.




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