According to recent studies, people with disabilities tend to take traditional therapies and treatments designed for their specific diagnoses. But there is one unconventional equine therapy that ties all of these treatments together and can help improve life for people with a disability. This treatment is called Hippotherapy.
What Is 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.
How Is Hipptherapy Beneficial?
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. Horseback riding allows for the physical movement to occur without the need to put weight on the client’s legs, 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.
How Hippotherapy Works
Let’s look at Hippotherapy as 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 it’s physically and mentally beneficially in multiple ways.
Physical Benefits of Hippotherapy
- 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 of Hippotherapy
- Visual coordination
- Sensory input
- Tactile responses
- Improved attention
- Increased ability to express thoughts and needs
- Improve understanding of visual cues
- Enhanced response time
Psychological Benefits of Hippotherapy
- Improved self-esteem
- Opportunities for social interactions
- Increased enthusiasm with treatments
- Enjoyable interactions with the animal
What Diagnoses Does Hippotherapy Help?
Hippotherapy helps a wide variety of diagnoses. Recent studies determined that Hippotherapy is also increasingly 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
Children as young as two years old have been known to benefit from Hippotherapeutic treatments. But it’s 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.
Is Hippotherapy Safe?
There are always a few risks, but hippotherapy therapists are HPCS-certified, and riders must wear appropriate safety equipment at all times. Throughout a Hippotherapy session, a Hippotherapist expert monitors and controls the horse’s and rider’s every move. Horses used for hippotherapy are trained to handle any type of outburst from the rider and are assured to be tamed and gentle. In addition to safety precautions and proper training, the therapist will also be able to read the rider’s responses to the treatment. They then adjust the difficulty level accordingly, keeping the horse and the rider in a positive but influential safe zone.