Horse riding is a rewarding experience that can be enjoyed by people of all abilities, boosting both physical and emotional wellbeing. We take a look at the benefits of spending time with horses and how learning to ride can open up a whole new way of enjoying the great outdoors.

By Alison Dando

The positive and therapeutic impact of horses has been well-documented. In their report ‘Health Benefits of Horse Riding’, the British Horse Society surveyed over 1,200 riders to discover just how spending time with horses has impacted on their physical and mental wellbeing. Overwhelmingly, being outdoors and engaging in nature was a major motivation to ride, while over 80% of respondents credited riding for helping them feel “relaxed, happy and active”.

Physical benefits of riding

Riding regularly can have real and longlasting physical benefits, from boosting your aerobic capacity to improving posture and developing a strong core. And for people with a physical disability, learning to ride can have a particularly significant impact.

According to the Riding for Disabled Association (RDA), a national charity with almost 500 accredited centres around the UK, the majority of people who ride with them have been referred by their doctor or physiotherapist. In a recently published report, the RDA also revealed that 80% of their riders had demonstrated physical improvement within just 12 weeks of starting to ride.

The key therapeutic factor, says RDA Communications Manager, Caroline Ward, is the movement of the horse.

“The horse at walk produces 1,000 movements in three dimensions in 10 minutes. The rider responds to these movements in order to stay in balance with the horse. This is more movement than can be produced in the average physiotherapy session.”

Learning to ride and spending time outdoors on horseback can also help to improve balance and coordination, supporting the disabled rider to regain a sense of mobility and movement. There is even a recognised form of therapy called hippotherapy, which uses the motion of the walking horse to provide therapeutic movement for the rider and has had positive results for people with a range of conditions, including MS, ADHD, cerebral palsy and dementia.

Feel-good factor

There’s no denying the therapeutic benefits of spending time with horses, whether that’s on a riding lesson or hack (as riding is sometimes known), helping out around the stable yard or simply spending some quality time grooming and taking care of them. Non-judgemental, intuitive and seemingly thoughtful, horses can also play a role in supporting and boosting your mental health and emotional wellbeing. According to the RDA, who work with adults and children with learning and physical disabilities, 76% of their riders have reported experiencing more enjoyment, while 82% saw an improvement in their ability to build relationships.

Learning to ride can also bring a real sense of achievement and boost your confidence as, for example, you gradually progress from lead rein to your first canter on a countryside hack. Increased confidence and self-esteem are, says RDA UK Chief Executive, Ed Bracher, among the most significant outcomes of spending time with horses, saying: “We track the impact riding has on our riders and we know there are benefits to physical strength, balance, mobility, communication and relationship building. Confidence is also one of the more important benefits that has an impact on people’s daily lives.” Ed added: “Whether that’s knowing you can tackle something physical that you didn’t feel you could do before, or having the confidence to speak up, be part of a team and meet new people.”

Safe riding

Whether it’s in the school arena or out on a hacking trail, the riding environment can present some challenges but there are riding schools that specialise in adaptive riding, making it an accessible activity for wheelchair users as well as people with other physical and learning disabilities. Depending on the client’s physical or learning needs, riding schools can make adaptations to their teaching methods and add in extra one-to-one support. Specialist equipment such as mounting ramps, hoists and adapted tack can also be used to ensure you are able to safely and securely ride. The choice of individual horse is also important. Horses are typically selected for their temperament, size and ability to support their rider as they learn and build their confidence.

Find a riding school or club near you

If you like the idea of experiencing the outdoors on horseback or would like to get back into the saddle, then both the British Horse Society and the RDA can help you find an adaptive riding centre.

The RDA has dedicated groups around the UK and has also launched a new accessibility mark scheme to help widen the number of commercial riding schools that can offer opportunities specifically for disabled riders. So far 52 local riding schools have been accredited with the mark, giving clients the reassurance that the centre has met the RDA standard.

For more information and to find an RDA group or accessibility mark riding school near you, visit:

BHS is the UK’s largest equine charity and accredits riding schools and instructor training so look for BHS approved status for reassurance on quality, horse welfare and safety. You can search for riding schools on the British Horse Society’s website:

Riders in Scotland can contact Horse Scotland for details of riding coaches:

Horses Changing Lives

Matt Dalley, 25, from Derby, started riding at the age of six and in 2009 competed at the Special Olympics. Matt, who is Deaf, now has his own horse and volunteers for the RDA.

“Riding has helped to build my confidence and self-esteem; it’s given me goals to work towards and achievements to celebrate. Being around horses and being a part of RDA has let me enjoy being part of a team and helped me make friends. Horses have also given me a purpose and enabled me to find my place in the world.”

Phoebe Boyce, who has Asperger’s syndrome, first started riding in 2017 at the age of eight and is now a member of the Scropton Riding for the Disabled team.

“Riding helps me in other aspects of my life as it gives me something to look forward to during the week and I have gained so much confidence with meeting new people and being more independent. Many people with autism find it hard to socialise, and although I also have these difficulties, I still enjoy volunteering and meeting and helping all the riders.”