Onotherapy: rehabilitation with donkeys

L’onotherapy at St. Raphael Viterbo has been practicing since 2005: in that year the Equestrian Rehabilitation Center has initiated, with the collaboration of Dr. Patrizia Reinger of the Fatebenefratelli Institute in Genzano di Roma, an experimental project of Rehabilitation with donkeys (onotherapy), sympathetic and generous equine endowed with great communication potential and equally good qualities such as affection, stimulating curiosity, and seeking interaction, which was proposed to our patients.

The project was born of the need to offer a new rehabilitative activity to those patients at St. Raphael Viterbo who presented difficulties with relationships, attention, aggression and excitability and who due to their pathology could not work with horses. Due to the positive results that have been recorded, onotherapy is now regularly available to patients and included in many rehabilitation projects.


Like the rehabilitation intervention with the horse, the rehabilitation intervention with the donkey, albeit through a different path, is also aimed at the recovery and/or development of:

simple and complex interpersonal relationship skills that involve at their core motivation, openness to experience and control of emotional functions;
Technical skills regarding memory, psychomotor, cognitive, language, and muscle functions.

Based on past experience, it could be verified that onotherapy is indicated for patients with excessive impulse control regardless of the severity of cognitive or motor impairment. In these cases it constitutes the assisted therapy of choice as well as in patients with severe sensory deficits or major affective-relational difficulties. In fact, it addresses a clientele that often expresses discomfort or malaise on the level of adaptation, socialization, behavior, and affectivity. Patients with disorders involving the affective and relational spheres are those who can most benefit from working with donkeys, which, by their nature, require contact and are empathetic, characteristics that make an affective interaction easier by facilitating the recovery of spontaneous communication.

The route

Onotherapy involves a pathway consisting of several steps:

  • Approach and contact: begins with individual work focused purely on contact with the animal and the practitioner;
  • Interaction with the donkey: we also gradually incorporate simple exercises that teach the patient how to handle the donkey (cleaning, leading with the lunger, etc.);
  • Ability to get response to one’s requests: collective games, courses of various types and difficulties with ground barriers, skittles, hurdles, leading with long reins are finally proposed. At this point we work as a group to expand the three-way relationship to include peers and operators as well.

Both The work with the horse and the work with the donkey make it possible to achieve similar goals with people who manifest different frailties: any rehabilitation intervention in fact tends toward the achievement of the greatest possible social and personal autonomy, the improvement of one’s self-esteem, and the enhancement of communication and contact with the other than oneself.