The Horse’s Movement and Therapeutic Riding

I still feel like the horse’s movement and it’s use in therapeutic riding is a mystery to me beyond the basics. Here are the notes I have collected about it so far. If you have anything to add, or any resources to recommend, please let me know!!!


“The motion of the horse is the greatest gift we, as instructors, have to offer our riders.”

–Joelle Devlin, The Instructor Voice, Spring 2009

The horse’s movement is important because it:

  • gives therapeutic benefits in strength, coordination, and confidence
  • is directly transmitted to and produces movement in the rider’s pelvis
  • causes constant balance reactions in the rider similar to walking

Horse Characteristics & Implications on Matching to Rider

  • Conformation
    • Conformation affects movement, which affects the rider’s experience and ability to receive therapeutic benefits.
    • Good conformation will give the rider movement that is symmetrical and straight, with maximum hindquarter engagement. The horse should use his body well: rhythmically and symmetrically.
    • The horse should be sound, but doesn’t have to be perfect. TR allows for some less than ideal traits because the horses are not in high strenuous competition.
    • A good back is important, because the back gets the most stress in TR.
    • A good mind is also important, because much of TR is confining and socially demanding.
  • Build
    • Narrow horse = for rider who has difficulty spreading legs, has high tone
    • Med/Wide horse = for rider who needs larger base of balance, has low tone
  • Size
    • Short horse = for rider with less confidence, fearful
    • Large = for large rider, or rider who is progressing in balance, strength, and confidence
  • Gaits
    • Choppy/Trappy stride = for rider who needs more stimulation, for low tone, helps increase tone
    • Smooth/gaited = for rider who is tense, prone to seizures, has poor balance, helps decrease spasticity
  • Movement
    • Front/Back (Anterior/Posterior)
      • for rider with tight hips
      • for rider who doesn’t know center
    • Side/Side (Lateral) & Up/Down
      • for rider who is learning to find center
    • Rotational (combines Anterior/Poster & Lateral)
      • for rider with high tone
  • Transitions
    • Fast = for rider with low tone to challenge their strength and balance, wake them up
    • Slow = for unbalanced rider
  • Temperament
    • Laid back = for rider who needs to build confidence
    • Attentive = for rider who needs to be taken care of, unbalanced
    • High maintenance = for rider who needs to learn to pay attention

Using the Horse’s Movement in the Lesson

  • Gaits
    • Walk
      • marching, striding, similar to human walking
      • use to improve core strength and balance
      • use to start all skills, because it gives the rider move time to adjust and feel, and allows for subtle feeling and correcting of the seat, to lay a good foundation before moving to faster gaits
    • Trot
      • choppy, swinging
      • use during warm up to improve posture and alignment and help them focus
      • use during lesson to help refocus the rider and provide needed sensory input
      • use with walk/trot transitions to improve low tone and core strength
      • too much trotting can be overstimulation for some
      • Two point at the trot gives deep proprioceptive input
    • Canter
      • springing, forward
      • high sensory input
  • Transitions
    • Most common
      • Walk halt walk
      • Collected extended walk
      • Walk trot walk
    • Effect
      • Increase stimulation and sensory input
      • Helps increase tone on low tone riders
      • Helps focus and improve posture
  • Figures
    • Most common
      • Circles
      • Figure 8s
      • serpentines
    • Effect
      • encourages development of core strength
      • causes rider to make adjustments to posture to maintain upright and balanced
      • the sharper/smaller the figures, the more stimulation and sensory input
      • start with shallow figures, then progress to smaller sharper versions
  • Direction
    • The rider’s weight is naturally put to the outside of the bend/turn
    • If rider tends to collapse one side, track the other direction –causes them to lengthen the outside and sit up straighter
      • Ex) rider tends to collapse the right side, so do some circles to the left
    • If rider tends to weight one side, track that same direction – causes them to shift weight to the opposite side
  • Rider’s posture
    • If rider is unbalanced or improper leg position, let horse drift in response to the heel/seat bone, to illustrate WHY maintaining center and correct leg position is so important.
    • Small riders can kneel, side sideways, sit backwards on a bareback pad to work on motor planning and receive different input. Basic vaulting positions at the walk are good for core strength.

Using the Leader to Impact the Horse’s Movement

  • Lead at the working walk! Studies have shown:
    • Casual walk = lead from left side, horse selects pace, loose lead, crooked, distracted
      • Pelvis moves a lot
      • Horse is tracking up – appears to be a good thing
      • Stuff is going on, just not as much as at Working walk
    • Working walk = actively led from left, lead contact, purposeful body language, straight
      • Pelvis moves a lot more
      • Overtracking – better than before – 6 in stride length difference!
      • Greater ROM of pelvis and lumbar spine in Working walk compared to Casual walk.
      • Riders receive the most beneficial input and increased pelvic/lumbar range of motion at the working walk.
    • Long line = from behind and to side, rein contact, connection, purpose, impulsion
      • Similar working walk
      • Appears smoother to me
      • Some horses move straighter on a long line
    • Keep horses straight.
      • When the horse is are straighter, their legs are further apart because they are not leaning or rebalancing, so their base of support is wider and their stride is truer.
      • Also, the rider is aligned best when the horse is straight.

Do you have anything to add? Please share!


  • Notes from my OWSC Oct 2011
  • Therapeutic Riding I Strategies for Instruction, Engle
  • Joelle Devlin, “The Horse…of Course!” NARHA The Instructor Voice, Spring 2009
  • Celia Bower, PT, HPCS, and Margo Dewkett, Master Instructor, of Windridge Therapeutic Equestrian Center of East TX. The Effects of Equine Handling on the Biomechanics of Mounted Human Subjects. PATH Intl Conference 2014.


Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement

2 thoughts on “The Horse’s Movement and Therapeutic Riding

  1. It sounds like you are unsure or skeptical about the horses’ movement. You need to ride several different horses bareback with someone leading the horse and it will clear it all up for you. Even better, close your eyes while riding them.

  2. Cindy, Your blog does such a great job of re-introducing all the many areas that we learned about as IIT and in the PATH workshop and then adding even more insights.
    I often think it would provide all of us instructors a great benefit if we annually reviewed our registered,(and advanced if applicable) workshop manuals.

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