A Woman, A Wheel Chair, And A Horse Named Jubilee: Celebrating Horses In Therapy And The Human Spirit

A guest post by Eleanor D. Van Natta over at Sage By Nature, be sure to check out more of her writing on her horse blog.
Lis Hartel

Image from Lis Hartel

When You Ride A Horse, You Ride Above Your Limitations

Heaven is high and earth wide.  If you ride three feet higher above the ground than other men, you will know what that means.  ~Rudolf C. Binding

It was the summer of 1952 in Helsinki, Finland. An accomplished rider named Lis Hartel from Denmark earned her place among esteemed Olympians when she claimed the silver medal in dressage.

Hartel was the first woman and the first civilian to earn a medal in the formerly male and military-restricted dressage competition of the Olympics; 1952 was the first year that dressage was opened up to include women and civilians.

Hartel may have been a civilian, but she was no stranger to battles or victories.


An Olympic medal is an impressive achievement in itself, but what is even more remarkable with this particular silver medalist is that eight years earlier she lay paralyzed from polio. Lis Hartel was struck by polio while pregnant with her second child in 1944 at the age of 23. Although she regained the use of most of her muscles, she remained partially paralyzed from the knees down for the rest of her life.

Doctors had told Hartel that she would never walk again, but they obviously underestimated her courage, her determination, and her love of horses and riding. She would have to be helped in and out of the saddle when riding, but she would ride – and she would ride very well.

Olympic Posters

Images from randy.jeon

Three Feet Higher Than A Wheel Chair

Just three years after doctors gave her their prognosis, Hartel placed second in women’s dressage in the Scandinavian riding championships.

After the 1952 Olympic silver medal, Hartel again won silver in the 1956 Olympics held in Stockholm. She didn’t stop there; Hartel also claimed titles of Danish champion in dressage in 1952, 1953, 1954, 1956 and 1959.

Perhaps once you ride three feet higher above the ground than most men, you just cannot fathom giving up that kind of heaven.

Lis Hartel

The Multi-Faceted Horse And Its Role In Therapy

Even with all the medals and titles, Hartel’s lasting legacy will be her contribution to therapeutic riding; she became a pioneer in the hippotherapy movement when she began rehabilitation with her own crippled body back in 1944. Later in life she would promote rehabilitation for disabled persons by traveling the world giving demonstrations and exhibitions, reportedly giving the proceeds to organizations for polio.

Men in Dressage

Image from Camp ASCCA

The term hippotherapy comes from the Greek word for horse, “hippos”. This form of therapy has been studied and documented to be helpful for people with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, stroke, autism, and learning or language disabilities.

From a physiological perspective, the reason hippotherapy works on patients is because the movement of the horse is transferred to the client in the saddle; it is this rhythmic pattern of movement from the horse that mimics the pattern of the pelvis when walking. The motion and movement is believed to exert positive effects on a patient’s postural control systems.

So positive, in fact, that there are mechanical devices – metal horses, if you will – that are being developed to mirror the action of the horse without the expense of the horse.

Horse lovers know that there is much more to a horse than just its movement, though, and more to a ride than just motion stimuli acting upon our postural control systems.

Equine assisted psychotherapy is another distinct form of therapy that utilizes horses and is rapidly gaining in popularity. Both hippotherapy and equine assisted psychotherapy draw upon the gifts that a multi-faceted animal such as the horse has to offer, gifts that help heal individuals who are in need both physically and emotionally.

Lis Hartel

Image from ligetil.nu

Riding To Victory

Lis Hartel rode a horse named Jubilee in both of her silver medal victories. A jubilee is a celebration, and thus he was aptly named. We can all celebrate the power of the human spirit and the horse-human bond in the story of Hartel’s victories over adversity.

Perhaps we will also be inspired by her story to find our personal paths upon which we will ride to our own individual victories and celebrations.

Lis Hartel passed away on February 12, 2009, at the age of 87.

Links For More Resources

Official Website Of The Olympic Movement
Lis Hartel Foundation
American Hippotherapy Association
North American Riding For The Handicapped
Equine Assisted Growth And Learning Association

About Eleanor

EleanorEleanor Van Natta is a wife, a mother of two little girls, and a caretaker to one dog, one cat, and one horse. She has a Zoology degree from the University of CA, Davis, and prior to becoming a stay at home mom she had a career in environmental and pharmaceutical sales. Eleanor is currently writing a book on horses and healing, you can find more of her writing on her website: Sage By Nature.

4 Comments on “A Woman, A Wheel Chair, And A Horse Named Jubilee: Celebrating Horses In Therapy And The Human Spirit

  1. Jack

    That was a very nice post. Thanks, Ms. Van Natta. And for some more perspective and inspiration on the power of equine therapy, I invite you all to check out this video — ahamoment.com/pg/moments/view/5994 — about the “aha moment” of one young man with cerebral palsy and how riding horses changed his life. I know you’ll enjoy it.

    Thanks,
    jack@ahamoment.com

  2. Sheila Morlas

    Thank you Eleanor for such a nice tribute to Lis. After reading yours and other articles about Lis, I was wondering if there are any books written about her or any video available. There should be a movie made of her life. What an inspiration. Such a wonderful person.

  3. Maja Andersen

    Thank you for your article on Lis Hartel. It is heartwarming to know that she is still remembered all over the world.Yes, someone ought to write a book about her.

    A small correction: Jubilee was a mare.

  4. Laura

    Lis Hartel and her mare inspired me to become a therapeutic riding instructor as soon as I’m done with high school.

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