The ‘T’ Word

Photograph by CAITLIN O'HARA
Photograph by CAITLIN O’HARA

Fair warning…this is one of my ‘soapbox’ topics for me and it is a hot topic in the industry that can ruffle some feathers.

This post discusses the terms therapy, therapeutic, and horse therapy when referencing adaptive (therapeutic) therapeutic riding. There are definitely appropriate times to use the word therapy when referencing equine assisted or facilitated therapy services….but therapeutic riding is NOT one of those instances.

I personally chose to use the term “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 morph 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 is 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 use the term horse therapy because that term sounds more important, romantic, [insert more impactful word here]….when they are in no way qualified to provide therapy. Blatant misuse of the term horse therapyneeds 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 Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAATs) industry and my wish for the various programs and services offered to grow, thrive, become more reputable, and use consistent terminology internationally. It is also due in part to the frequency in which I hear the term. I know that using the term horse therapy, for the most part,  stems from a lack of understanding the differences between the words therapytherapeutic, and the several different Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies provided in this industry. Hopefully further education of those providing EAAT services and also educating the public on what EAATs truly are. Blatant misuse of the term therapy should not be tolerated and we need to act together as an industry to raise 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 am not a therapist. 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 do indeed provide therapy. As an adaptive (therapeutic) riding instructor, whatever I do must relate back to an equine groundwork or riding skill because that is within my scope of practice a a certified professional and equine professional. I don’t want to touch therapy with a hundred foot pole and bear that heavy burden! There are so many legal things tied in to true therapy that I don’t want to worry about because I unknowingly (or perhaps knowingly) 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, licence, etc recognized by the state to provide therapy….then they absolutely should NOT provide or claim that they provide horse therapy.

So how do I respond when people say “Oh! You do horse therapy! How cool!”. I say “You know…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 and 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 true therapy to a trained and credentialed therapist”

How can we help cure the ‘T’ word epidemic?

1. Instructors and Centers should educate themselves on the various terms like therapeutic, therapy, adaptive, etc. and know when to use them. I have provided multiple definitions below as well as links to other leaders in the EAAT industry. Feel free to use them!

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

3. We need to educate the community. I LOVE going out and providing educational presentations on “The Wonderful World of Equine Assisted Activates and Therapies” so I can help to educate those seeking EAAT services on what to look for in an instructor, what to look for in a center, differences between each EAAT offered, the appropriate terms that should be used, common billing practices, etc. I encourage YOU to go out and educate the community about the EAAT industry. Be sure to do your research first and be well-versed in the different terminology. It may sound daunting, but doing community education presentations is a great way to challenge yourself to grow in your knowledge and to also get your name/your center’s name out in the community. Look for local disability fairs and offer to be a presenter, go speak at continuing education days for local schools, go to a mental health resource staffing day, etc. (this is also a great way to boost your portfolio and resume!)

4. We need to hold each other accountable. If you hear someone or a center misusing terms in our industry, especially horse therapy, speak up! Of course don’t jump down their throat…but graciously have a conversation with them and seek to clarify why they choose to use the terms they are using and then provide information on more industry correct terms to use and why the correct words matter so much.

5. We need to hold the media accountable. I am beyond grateful when I or the center I work for are 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 over to me for review before they are published. This is an extra step that some reporters or journalists balk at initially, but I then explain my motivation behind it and they are more than willing to help out the correct marketing of our industry!

6. Don’t forget about your volunteers and families. Don’t forget to 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 served are often your biggest word of mouth marketing source and have a huge impact on how the community views you or your center. Clarifying the terms with the families on a repetitive basis also helps to diffuse confusion and frustration on why they can’t use insurance to pay for the recreational adaptive equine activities they are receiving. 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 times I have to sign documents for parents, guardians, schools, etc. that state that they are 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. Often times I will also write a brief explanation that “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 Mirriam-Webster Dictionary:

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

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

Adaptive is defined  by Merriam- Webster 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 American Hippotherapy Association 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 (occupation therapists, physical therapists, or speech-language pathologists). Use of this term outside 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 pathologists (and licensed assistants), psychologist, social worker, or MD, 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 impact and grow our industry TOGETHER by correctly using terms when referencing to the different equine activities or therapies you or your center provide. 

I challenge YOU to do your research, become confident in the terms, and go do community outreach to help educate those who rely on us to accurately represent the industry!


Written by Saebra Pipoly. Learn more about the author by clicking here.

Send Saebra an email at saebra.p@hooffallsandfootfalls.comsubscribe to the Hoof Falls & Footfalls newsletter, follow on instagram, and subscribe to the YouTube channel!

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