According to recent studies, in today’s world those with disabilities tend to take the more traditional route of therapies and treatments specially designed for their specific diagnoses. This could include physical, occupational even speech and language therapy depending on the clients disability. However there is one unconventional equine therapy that ties all of these treatments into one that someone with a disability, cognitive or physical, could use to help improve their way of life. That treatment is called Hippotherapy.
Hippotherapy is a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment done with the use of a horse. In fact, Hippotherapy quite literally means, “horse therapy” in Greek. Although the concept was primarily used in Germany in the early 1960’s, it took until the 1980’s for the United States to fully recognize it as an official therapeutic treatment. Currently the therapy is used to engage sensory, neuromotor and cognitive systems to achieve functional outcomes in a fun and motivational way in a nonclinical setting.
So how would horseback riding be beneficial for those with a disability? Well surprisingly enough, research has found that the movement of a horse is quite similar to that of a human’s. For those who can’t walk or have trouble walking this therapy is beneficial for pelvis and trunk movement that one would not normally receive by solely sitting in a wheelchair. Baring the weight of the rider, the horse allows for the physical movement to occur without the need to put weight on the client’s legs while producing core muscle exercises normally obtained by walking.
Through the tempo, rhythm, repetition and cadence of the horse itself, the movement can also influence the neuromuscular development in humans by triggering physical and mental reactions. Horseback riding is an action reaction basis. This means that with each movement of the horse an influential reaction is needed in response to its action. Let me put this is visual form for you with a processes originally explained by Dr. Tim Shurtleff, an Occupational Therapist from Washington University. As Dr. Shurtleff explains, if a horse steps 100 times a minute for 35 minutes that means that the horse itself is talking over 3,000 steps. With each step of the horse, the rider has to stabilize their trunk. That means that for every 35 minutes a client is accomplishing about 3,000 trunk movements as they work to stay upright. 3,000 steps equal 3,000 physical movements and 3,000 sensory tasks. It’s a challenging and quite repetitive activity but one that is physically and mentally beneficially in multiple ways.
Its physical benefits include:
- Respiratory control
- Improved postural symmetry
- Reduced abnormal muscle tone
- Control of extremities
- Trunk core strength
- Improved gross motor skills
- Enhancing balance and strength
- Increase Endurance
Cognitive benefits include:
- Visual coordination
- Sensory input
- Tactile responses
- Improved attention
- Increased ability to express thoughts and needs
- Improve understanding of visual cues
- Enhanced response time
- Improved self-esteem
- Opportunities for social interactions
- Increased enthusiasm with treatments
- Enjoyable interactions with the animal
With a wide variety of diagnoses that this is beneficial to, recent studies have determined that Hippotherapy is appropriate for specific diagnoses including:
- Cerebral Palsy
- Down Syndrome
- Cognitive disabilities including brain and spine injuries
- Language and sensory processing disorders
- Developmental delays
- Genetic disorders
Although there is no specific point in a clients diagnosis that would dictate whether or not a person would be able to participate in Hippotherapy, children as young as 2 years old have been known to benefit from Hippotherapeutic treatments. However it is advised to ask your doctor and get approval first before attempting Hippotherapy with any type of disability, especially for those with Down syndrome and spine abnormalities.
I’m sure you’re asking yourself, but is it safe? Of course there are always a few risks but therapists are HPCS-certified and children would be wearing appropriate safety equipment at all times. Throughout a Hippotherapy session a Hippotherapist expert is right next to the client and the horse monitoring and controlling the horses and the clients every move. Although the horse itself influences the rider’s reactions, some of those with disabilities may have outburst or mood swings that would normally startle the animal; however these specific horses are trained to handle those types of situations and are assured to be tamed and gentle. In addition to safety precautions and proper training, the therapist will also be able to read their clients responses to the treatment and adjust the difficulty level accordingly to keep the horse and the client in a positive but influential safe zone.
For more information please visit:
American Hippotherapy Association:
Children’s Theraplay Foundation: