‘Hippos’ is the Greek word for horse and hippotherapy is using the horse as a treatment tool in physical, occupational, speech and language, and psychotherapy. This intervention has been used for centuries in Europe for the rehabilitation of service men and others. It has been recognized in this country for decades by service providers as a viable treatment tool. The horse provides a unique vehicle for treatment in many, many diagnoses, including traumatic brain injury. The horse provides a dynamic moving surface that is 3 dimensional, ever-changing, and able to be graded or modified as needed by the client. The sensory rich environment provides a multitude of opportunities to work on therapy goals where senses such as tactile, vestibular, proprioception, vision, and auditory can be addressed. Cognition challenges such as task sequencing, initiating and attending to task, problem solving, and appropriate socialization are common goals of a session. In broader terms, areas such as gross and fine motor control, balance, coordination, motor planning, strengthening, and range of motion are always a part of the session.
Why is Hippotherapy beneficial?
Therapeutic riding has been shown to be very beneficial physically and psychologically to individuals with various disabilities. There has been much research done over the past 40+ years to substantiate this and more is being done around the world. PATH International (formerly known as North American Riding for the Handicapped Association - www.narha.org) is an organization dedicated to the ongoing education, accreditation, and research of Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies, including therapeutic riding. American Hippotherapy Association (AHA) and Federation of Riding for the Disabled International (FRDI) are also dedicated to ongoing research and education of the benefits of hippotherapy (medical use of the equine environment in treatment) and therapeutic riding.
Among the inherent benefits, physically, sitting on a horse at a good walk, the horse moves one’s pelvic cradle, spinal column, and shoulders if in a normal walk. The horse provides a dynamic, changeable, three dimensional movements that challenge the rider in both fine and gross motor skills, balance, coordination, and vestibular input to name just a few systems impacted. The rider who is spastic can get a gentle stretching, relaxing of tight muscles, and through these, a release of some joints. A rider with low tone is stimulated to facilitate muscle response due to the movement of the horse. An increase in weight bearing, increase in speech through diaphragm stimulation and increase in respiratory volume, and increases in functional use of the extremities are all benefits of riding the horse. Motor planning is a big part of riding and life, and its presence in Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies cannot be overlooked either.
Psychologically the rider gains confidence, increase in self-esteem, and is challenged in areas such as task sequencing, planning, and following directions. This is such a highly motivational activity, the clients work very hard at ‘learning to ride’, that many therapists of various disciplines feel that as much or more can be accomplished in this arena than in many traditional settings for many clients. The riders are working very hard and yet many don’t realize the ‘therapeutic’ value inherent in the activity at the same time. The feeling of being independent, for some it is a feeling of getting back some normalcy to their lives after catastrophic events. The psychological effects are countless.
Who can benefit from Hippotherapy?
Many times the common misconception is that the client’s disability may be too involved for this activity and in most cases this idea is incorrect. We have specially trained staff with nearly 30 years of experience in the therapeutic riding realm, we have an occupational therapist on staff, and therapy horses who have been specifically chosen, trained, and have been working with individuals with disabilities for many years.
Clients with various impairments such as Cerebral Palsy, Autism, Developmental Delay, Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis, Traumatic Brain Injury, Arthritis, Scoliosis, Spinal Cord Injury, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, etc. may benefit from Hippotherapy. Client ages vary from very young clients to senior citizens. All precautions and contra-indications as prescribed by our national governing body, North American Riding for the Handicapped and the American Hippotherapy Association, apply to our program’s services. AHA is an excellent resource for obtaining information regarding Hippotherapy and can be reached at 1-800-369-7433 or at their website, American Hippotherapy Association.
There are many studies that may help you understand the true scope of what therapeutic riding can do for medically approved individuals with disabilities. Please call with your questions!