Hippotherapy is a physical, occupational, and speech-language therapy treatment strategy that utilizes equine movement as part of an integrated intervention program to achieve functional outcomes. Hippotherapy programs are active “in twenty-four countries and the horse’s functions have expanded to therapeutic riding for people with physical, psychological, cognitive, social, and behavioral problems. Hippotherapy has also been approved by the American Speech and Hearing Association as a treatment method for individuals with speech disorders.
This form of therapy is based on the fact that equine pelvic movements are quite similar to a human’s and therefore, the unique motions of a horse can help energize the muscles of those kids who do not have the ability to move about independently. Many therapists have seen a considerable improvement in their patients’ gross motor skills, such as sitting, standing and walking.
The medical world began to observe significant mental benefits too, in patients undergoing hippotherapy. This is probably because children who were unable to move about could suddenly do so, on a horse; they could go where they wanted, at the speed they wanted and this must have been a liberating feeling for them. The United States formalized this discipline with the formation of The American Hippotherapy Association (AHA) in 1992.
Hippotherapy is not the same as therapeutic horseback riding, in which certain riding skills are taught to the patients; kids undergoing this therapy mainly benefit from the movement of the horse. A single hippotherapy session combines speech, physical & occupational therapy. Kids learn to balance themselves while riding a horse, which is the crux of the treatment. This form of therapy is now commonly used for treating kids with Asperger’s, autism, cerebral palsy, arthritis and multiple sclerosis. It can also be beneficial for children suffering from spinal injuries, brain injuries, psychiatric disorders and behavioral disorders. The American Hippotherapy Association has shared testimonials of various kids who have benefited by the hippotherapy program on: http://www.americanhippotherapyassociation.org/hippotherapy/testimonials/.
Speech Therapy Benefits for Hippotherapy
Several speech and language pathologists have been using the movements of a horse to accomplish language, swallowing and traditional speech goals. Balanced, rhythmic and modulated horse movements help address speech defects by targeting the physiological systems, which support language and speech function. A hippotherapy session can be further enhanced by including traditional oral exercises.
Physical Therapy Benefits for Hippotherapy
Therapists who are trained in hippotherapy usually tend to use the movements of the horse to help their patients achieve balance, strength, postural control, gait and a whole range of motion goals. A patient’s impairments can also be addressed by varying or modifying the animal’s movements, i.e., the tempo, rhythm and cadence.
Occupational Therapy Benefits for Hippotherapy
Many therapists utilize equine movements to improve a patient’s balance, motor control, sensory processing and coordination. The movements of a horse are multi-dimensional, which could be beneficial in developing cognitive skills, visual motor skills, fine motor skills and bilateral control. Sensory processing through this therapy also addresses proprioceptive, vestibular, visual, auditory and tactile systems.
In the future our hopes are to have our own hippo therapy horses and classes. Right now we have two locations, in Athens and in Marietta. Email us If you are interested in hippo therapy riding lessons.