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"Therapy Horses for the Deaf"


Lisa G Kahle

July 12, 2012


Therapy Horses for the Deaf


The use of animals to provide service and therapy to enhance people's health and lives and to provide greater independence has been practiced throughout recorded history.  Today, many different types of animals -- monkeys, birds, pigs, dogs, and horses, to name a few -- provide therapeutic benefits to humans with physical and mental illnesses as well as providing assistance to people with disabilities.  For deaf people of all ages, animals can provide love, protection, and companionship.  While the most commonly recognized therapy and/or service animals are dogs, the use of horses as therapy animals for people who are Deaf is becoming increasingly popular. The emphasis here on the use of horses for therapy rather than service is important since the research suggests that horses are not well-suited as service animals.  In fact, the Guide Horse Foundation (2005), states the following:

1.   The Guide Horse Foundation is against the use of riding-size horses indoors because of the risk of injury to the horses, the ... handler and the general public. While our research has indicated that Miniature horses make suitable guide animals, large guide animals of any species can create a hazard for the public when used in an inappropriate setting for an animal of that size.

2.   Miniature horses are not well suited for assisting [people who are deaf]. Horses do not possess the "watch dog" instinct which is important for a hearing assistance animal.

  Horses are known to possess a particular ability to break through the wall of isolation and frustration which can be frequently present in the lives of people who are deaf.  According to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), an international organization dedicated to serve as a resource and advocate for equine-assisted activities and therapies,  "People who are deaf or hard of hearing may experience improved self-esteem and a sense of independence and empowerment by becoming an independent equestrian. People with hearing impairments will develop unique ways to communicate with their instructor and equine partner while learning riding or driving." (2012)

Venessa Britton (1991) identified additional benefits of horse therapy to include:

        Improved balance and coordination;

        Communication with a horse, which responds to actions, is often easier than communicating with another person, who responds to words.  For example, when a rider pulls on the right rein, the horse turns to the right.  If they pull both reins, the horse stops.  If they don't do anything at all, the horse usually will not do anything;

        While the deaf person will need to be taught how to interpret the language of the horse, the horse can still compensate for sensory deficits of the rider.  For example, if a horse hears something, like a loud noise, dog barking, or people laughing, they are able to alert the rider by responding with different body signals; Such as, raising of the head, tensing of the body, turning towards of the sound.   As a deaf rider becomes more astute at recognizing these types of signals, it will contribute to developing an increased sensory awareness.

There are also unique challenges to teaching the deaf to ride.   Robin Hulsey writes, "Since effective communication is the key in teaching riding to anyone, regardless of disability, it is especially important in the case of a deaf child". (1979).  The author offers additional considerations:

        If the person can't see the instructor, they can't "hear" the instructor.  An instructor will need to place themselves in the arena such that the person can see them as they ride.  Anything that can be done to promote more effective communication with deaf students will make learning to ride easier and more enjoyable.   

        Some deaf persons may have a diminished sense of rhythm, teaching them concepts, such as posting to a trot, should be taught at a walk before moving to the next level. 

        Demonstration is one of the most effective techniques to introduce and reiterate riding concepts.  It's important for the instructor to establish new techniques by direct communication with the deaf rider before they then try it on their own. 

            I had the privilege of meeting and observing a session with a local individual who provides horse therapy to the disabled.  Deb Amidon, owner of EdgeCort farms has been providing therapeutic services with horses since 1996.  The service is offered to several different organizations in the Cortland County, New York area.  There are two thirty-minute sessions conducted a day, twice a week.  The students range widely including those who are severely autistic, mentally disabled, blind, hard of hearing, and deaf.  Several of her students have gone to the Special Olympics with horses from her stable. 

In speaking with Ms. Amidon about her experiences with deaf persons she reiterated positively all of the areas identified by Vanessa Britton above.  Students who are deaf achieve a sense of well-being, independence, and freedom through interacting with her horses.  She also agreed that as an instructor teaching a deaf student to ride, it's important that they see you and that you develop a language you both understand.  One of the things she strives to do with all her students is to have them "be as independent as they can be." (Amidon, 2012). 

A riding instructor does not need to be someone well-versed in American Sign Language, but they should be well-versed in the knowledge and techniques of teaching riding.  It will be important for the instructor to establish a means of communication with a deaf or hard of hearing person, learning the basics of sign language and additional signs unique to riding instruction.  When an instructor is able to develop a connection between the student and the therapy horse, the benefits of teaching the deaf to ride far outweigh the challenges.




Adams, K. & Rice, S. (2011, Sept. 19).  A Brief Information Resource on Assistance Animals for the Disabled. Animal Welfare Information Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved June 27, 2012:

Amidon, D.  (2012).  EdgeCort Horse Farm.  Route 11, Cortland, NY 13045. Interview conducted July 11, 2012

Britton, V. (1991). Riding for the Disabled. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd.

Hulsey, R. (1979). Horseback Riding for the Hearing Impaired. Chesterfield, Missouri: Riding High, Inc.

Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International. (2012). Benefits-Deafness. Resources, Industry Links, Equine Welfare. Retrieved July 5, 2012:

The Guide Horse Foundation. (2005). Main web page and Frequently asked Miniature Horse Questions.  Retrieved July 1, 2012:

U.S. Department of Justice. (2008, Jan. 14). Commonly Asked Questions about Service Animals in Places of Business.  Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section. Retrieved July 4, 2012:


Websites of additional articles on Therapy horses & Service Animals:

Bragg, R. (nd). Animals that Help Deaf People. Retrieved July 1, 2012: 

National Technical Institute for the Deaf.  (nd). Success Stories: Dacia Anastasia Hirsch. Rochester Institute of Technology. Rochester, NY 14623. Retrieved June 28, 2012:

Dogs for the Deaf, Inc. An organization dedicated to rescuing and professional dogs to assist with hearing loss, autism, panic/anxiety, and other challenges.



Appendix A

Interview conducted with Ms. Deb Amidon

Owner of Edge-Cort Horse Farm

July 11, 2012

Questions asked:

1.      How long have you been providing horse therapy to the disabled?

2.      Overall what has been your experience doing this type of work?

3.      Have you ever had a deaf or hearing impaired person?

a.      If yes, what are the unique challenges of these individuals?

b.      What has been the positive to teaching these individuals

c.      Can I meet them?

4.      Anything else you would like to share?

Notes: Observed 4 different riders, some who had to be assisted, one who was able to ride by himself and understood direction and could guide the horse independently.


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