SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — When Christian Bautista Pérez, then 2 years old, was diagnosed with epilepsy and attention deficit disorder, his older brother, José Luis Bautista Pérez, soon remembered the beliefs of his Tsotsil relatives. “My grandparents used to say people are epileptic when they were going to be a sorcerer but couldn’t,” he says. “They think health issues happened because of something they didn’t eat, or they attribute it to … curses, to situations that are more inexplicable.”
Bautista Pérez and Christian, now 14, live in Yalchitom, a community in San Juan Chamula, one of 17 municipalities in the Chiapas Highlands, a region where 90% of the population is indigenous, mostly Tsotsil. Around 8% of Chiapas Highlands’ residents live with a disability or a limitation in daily activities, according to the 2020 census.
Decades of studies show that indigenous people worldwide are disproportionately likely to experience disability. Cultural misconceptions, lack of state support and poor access to health care exacerbate the challenges of having a disability in indigenous communities. “There are other children out there who are in the same situation,” Bautista Pérez says. “[The family] keeps them in the house, so the children don’t receive any help or treatment.”
But an expert horseback rider in the municipality of San Cristóbal de Las Casas launched an initiative to change this.
Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico
Ángeles Ríos founded Equitach, an equine therapy center, 10 years ago. The center started with one horse and nine children; now, they have six horses and assist around 90 families from the Chiapas Highlands, many of whom are Tsotsil — like Christian, who’s attended therapy there for seven years.
“Before arriving at Equitach, he almost wouldn’t answer any questions. If we asked him something, he would answer with the same words,” Bautista Pérez says. “Now, he has improved so much. He likes to write, read, draw, solve puzzles.”
Equine therapy, also known as hippotherapy, is nothing new — World War I veterans with disabilities were famously treated in the United Kingdom with therapeutic horse-riding, and one study dates the practice back to the ancient Greeks. However, this kind of therapy didn’t gain traction until it was standardized in the United States and Europe in the 1970s. Now, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International has over 800 member centers around the world, including in China, South Korea and Zimbabwe.
Multiple studies over the course of several decades have shown that, for children and adults with disabilities, equine therapy produces physical, mental and social benefits, such as improvements in exercise tolerance and mobility (making everyday tasks such as working, studying and taking care of oneself easier), in interpersonal interactions and in overall quality of life.
But for indigenous people, the process can be much slower, Ríos says. “Commonly in these communities, there are those who see disabilities as a curse. This makes the rehabilitation process much harder, as not even the families feel confident to present their children, to integrate them in society.”
Ríos explains that the first sessions can be terrifying for parents. “Imagine getting your disabled son on top of an animal weighing 600 kilos,” she says. “Horses are prey animals. In nature, they are scared easily, they react quickly, they are impulsive. It needs professional training to make them safe for a child with a disability.”
Because of these characteristics, Ríos explains, horses expect to be guided, to follow a leader, which forces riders to develop self-confidence. “It gives them a lot of tools for everyday life.”
“We give them tools to strengthen their senses and their bodies … and we also support the parents,” says Yuritzin Osuna, a therapist who works with Equitach. “That’s another thing: parental overprotection.”
Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico
Dominga Gómez is a 58-year-old woman of Tsotsil ancestry from San Juan Chamula. Her three children with disabilities attend sessions at Equitach. The improvement has been significant, she says. Her son, Marcelino Gómez, 33, who didn’t walk, now does so with an aid, and can shower by himself. “They love going with the horses. They are very excited when they know they’re going to the sessions,” Dominga Gómez says.
Ríos says they have treated people with Parkinson’s disease, Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, visual impairment, psychomotor delays, attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some went on to become professional horseback riders; others have learned to walk again, use their senses and become more independent.
Every Monday morning, Christian arrives at Equitach. “I am happy here,” he says. With Ríos’ help, he gets up on the horse. Sometimes they ride away from the facility, through the foggy mountains of the Chiapas Highlands.