The “T” Word: A Riding Instructor’s Perspective


This article discusses the terms therapy, therapeutic, and horse therapy when referencing adaptive (therapeutic) riding. There are definitely appropriate times to use the word therapy when referencing equine-assisted or equine facilitated therapy services, but adaptive (therapeutic) riding is not one of those instances. I personally chose to use the terms adaptive riding or adaptive horsemanship instead of therapeutic riding or therapeutic horsemanship when referring to my line of work and the services I provide because of how easily the word therapeutic can be misinterpreted and morphed into the word therapy—the “T” word.

The “T” word has become an epidemic in our industry. Most times when I hear the term horse therapy, it comes from a parent or caregiver inquiring about services. Occasionally I get an inquiry about someone wanting to become an instructor to teach “horse therapy lessons” and we get to have a great conversation about what therapeutic or adaptive riding really is (hint: it’s not therapy). However, there are some times when an individual or center blatantly uses the term horse therapy because it sounds more important, romantic, or impactful when they are actually in no way qualified to provide therapy. Blatant misuse of the term horse therapy needs to stop. It is damaging our industry. It is misleading those we serve who trust us to be accurate in advertising the services we provide. It has come to the point where I internally cringe when I hear the words horse therapy. This reaction is due to the passion I have for the equine-assisted activities (EAA) and equine-assisted therapies (EAT) industries and my wish for these industries to grow, become more reputable, and use consistent terminology internationally. It is also due in part to the frequency with which I hear the term. I know that using the term horse therapy, for the most part, stems from a lack of understanding of the differences between the words therapy, therapeutic, and the different EAAs and EATs provided in this industry. Hopefully this can be alleviated with further education of those providing EAA and EAT services, as well as informing the public about what EAA and EAT truly are. Blatant misuse of the term therapy should not be tolerated, and we need to act together as an industry to raise the bar on how accurate we expect individuals and centers to be when marketing services. I am a certified therapeutic riding instructor. I am not a therapist. I do not provide horse therapy. I teach adaptive riding and adaptive horsemanship lessons. I teach a recreational activity. I hold absolutely no state recognized credentials to enable me to provide therapy, and it would be unethical and fraudulent for me to say that I provide therapy. As an adaptive riding instructor, whatever I do must relate back to an equine groundwork or riding skill because that is within my scope of practice as a certified equine professional. I don’t want to bear the heavy burden of providing therapy! There are so many legalities tied in to therapy provided by a licensed practitioner that I don’t want to use the term horse therapy to market my services. The only people who can truly provide therapy utilizing the horse and the equine environment are physical therapy, occupational therapy, or speech-language pathology professionals working within their scope of practice, or licensed mental health professionals who include horses in their scope of practice. If the person providing the supposed horse therapy does not hold a certificate, license, or is not otherwise recognized by the state to provide therapy, then they absolutely should not claim that they provide horse therapy. So how do I respond when people say “Oh! You do horse therapy! How cool!”? I say, “That is a pretty common misunderstanding in my industry. Even though I am a certified therapeutic riding instructor, my end goal is to teach horseback riding skills to people who have physical, cognitive, or emotional diagnoses. I adapt how I teach and support them depending on their unique needs. There are definitely therapeutic benefits of horse activities that impact a person in everyday life, but I leave the physical therapy, occupational therapy, or speech-language therapy to a trained and credentialed professional.”

How Can We Help Cure the “T” Word Epidemic?

1. Instructors and centers should educate themselves on the various terms, including therapeutic, therapy,adaptive, etc., and know when to use them. Multiple definitions and sources are listed in this article. Feel free to use them.

2. Instructors and centers need to make an effort to use the correct terms when marketing themselves and their centers. I know it can be tempting to use terms like therapy that pull on the heartstrings and sound romantic. Don’t do it. Use accurate terms. You may initially see volunteers and donors drawn to your horse therapy center, but it may be for the wrong reasons and it can leave a bad taste in the mouths of volunteers, parents, and supporters when the wrong terms are knowingly used. When they are unknowingly used, it shows lack of education and awareness of the EAA and EAT industries.

3. We need to educate the community. I love going out and providing educational presentations on the wonderful world of EAA and EAT so I can help to educate those seeking services on what to look for in an instructor, what to look for in a center, the differences between each EAA and EAT offered, the appropriate terms that should be used, common billing practices, and more. I encourage you to go out and educate your community about the EAA and EAT industries. Be sure to do your research first and be well-versed in the terminology. It may sound daunting, but community education presentations are a great way to challenge yourself to grow in your knowledge and to get your name/your center’s name out in the community. Look for local disability fairs and offer to be a presenter, speak at continuing education days for local schools, or visit a mental health resource staffing day. This is also a great way to boost your portfolio and resume!

4. We need to hold each other accountable. If you hear someone misusing terms in our industry, especially horse therapy, speak up! Have a gracious conversation with them and seek to understand why they choose to use the terms they are using. Then, provide information on the correct industry terms to use and why the words matter so much.

5. We need to hold the media accountable. I am beyond grateful when my work is featured in print or digital media, and I make it a point to verbalize my thanks many times to the person doing the story. However, I require that all written items and/or videos must be sent to me for review before they are published. This is an extra step that some journalists balk at initially, but when I explain my motivation they are more than willing to help with the correct marketing of our industry.

6. Don’t forget about your volunteers and families.Educate your volunteers and the families you serve on the correct terms to use and why it is so important that they understand the terminology. Your volunteers and families are often your biggest word-of-mouth marketing source, and they can have a huge impact on how the community views you and your center. Clarifying the terms on a repetitive basis also helps to diffuse confusion and frustration on why they can’t use insurance to pay for recreational adaptive equine activities. They hear and think horse therapy, and in their world therapy = billable through insurance.

7. Be accurate on every document you put your name or your center’s name on. Often I have to sign documents for parents, guardians, and schools that state that a client is receiving horse therapy services, or some other version of that term. I will cross out the wording on the document and write in the accurate term. I also write a brief explanation: “The individual is participating in adaptive riding taught by certified therapeutic riding instructors at a premier accredited facility. Adaptive riding is a recreational activity that is known to have therapeutic benefits on physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being. The service they are receiving is not therapy.”Being accurate and honest every time is important and it is the ethical thing to do. Remember that you are putting your name down on that document. Represent yourself and your center well.

Let’s look at a few definitions from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

THERAPY: Therapy is defined in the dictionary as “treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder.”

THERAPEUTIC: Therapeutic is defined as “having a beneficial effect on the body or mind” or “producing a useful or favorable result or effect.”

ADAPTIVE: Adaptive is defined as “designed or intended to assist disabled persons,” “engaged in by disabled persons with the aid of equipment or techniques adapted for a disability,” or “participating in a sport with the aid of equipment or techniques adapted for disability.”

Based off the definitions above, can you see why I choose to use the word adaptive when explaining my line of work?

Industry Leader Definitions

The AHA, Inc. defines the following terms:

ADAPTIVE RIDING:A riding lesson for individuals with special needs taught by specifically trained instructors. The goals of adaptive riding may address areas of recreation and leisure, education, socialization, or fitness and do not focus on rehabilitation.

THERAPEUTIC: A common term to define an activity that has a benefit to overall function of an individual. Therapeutic is a term that falls under one of several billable codes used by therapists (occupational therapists, physical therapists, or speech-language pathologists). Use of this term out side the realm of therapy can lead to confusion when a licensed therapist is not present.

THERAPY:Treatment interventions provided by a licensed/credentialed health professional such as a physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech-language pathologist (and licensed assistants), psychologist, social worker, or medical doctor, among others.

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, International (PATH Intl.) provides the following information:

EXCERPT FROM THE PATH INTL.REGISTERED INSTRUCTOR CERTIFICATION BOOKLET: A PATH Intl. Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor(TRI) must possess the knowledge, skills, and abilities to effectively and safely teach riding skills to individuals with disabilities.

THERAPEUTIC RIDING: Therapeutic riding is an equine-assisted activity for the purpose of contributing positively to the cognitive,physical, emotional, and social well-being of individuals with special needs.

My challenge to you

Let’s grow our industry together by correctly using terms when referencing the different equine activities or therapies you or your center provide. I further challenge you to do your research, become confident in the terms, and offer community outreach to help educate those who rely onus to accurately represent the industry. 



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