Hippotherapy - Horse Aided Therapy

A description of hippotherapy -- the use of horses to aid in mental and physical therapy. Describes areas where it can be beneficial.

For many people, horseback riding is a hobby - something they enjoy doing in their spare time. Others ride horses to help them in their work. But for some, horses are an essential part of a physical therapy program.

The use of horses in rehabilitation is known as "hippotherapy". Although the term may bring up a mental picture of a hippo on a psychiatrist's couch, "hippo" is actually Greek for horse, so the term translates to "treatment with the help of a horse." Rather than the rider controlling the horse, the horse influences the rider.

Horseback riding is currently being used by therapists who specialize in the areas of physical (gross motor skills), occupational (fine motor skills), and speech. It aids in the treatment of both neurological and neuromuscular conditions. According to Corcoran Physical Therapy in Chicago, Illinois, "For many people with disabilities, riding offers a new freedom they might otherwise never have known."

Records of therapeutic riding for individuals with disabilities have been traced as far back as the 5th century, B.C. However, in modern times, the first use of hippotherapy was to treat poliomyelitis in Europe after World War II. In the 1960s, it was first used in the United States, and its popularity grew as people realized its effectiveness.

The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) was formed in 1969 to "promote the rehabilitation of individuals with physical, emotional and learning disabilities through equine-facilitated activities." The group reports that therapeutic riding can improve muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination, motor development and emotional well being. About 30,000 people benefit from 600 NARHA riding centers in the United States and Canada. Participating organizations include Easter Seals' camps, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Special Olympics, the Spinal Bifida Association and the United Cerebral Palsy group.

Magic Moments Riding Therapy in Missouri notes, "Research shows that students that participate in therapeutic riding experience physical, emotional and mental rewards. Because of the gentle rhythm of the horse's movements, a rider who is unable to walk alone can experience a motion similar to the human gait, thereby improving abilities to be flexible, to have better balance and better muscle strength."

Hippotherapy has been known to improve posture, motor skills, coordination and muscle tone, respiration, thinking skills, balance, and speech. The motion and heat of the horse in turn aid the rider's blood circulation and reflexes and exercise the rider's spinal column, joints and muscles.

Hippotherapy treatments are completed by licensed and trained health providers, and include formal exercises on horseback. The horse is led while the therapist works with the rider to accomplish certain goals. The movements of the horse are used to mimic normal human developmental patterns and movements. Tim Stine, who was paralyzed from the chest down in a diving accident, said, "It's the closest I've come to feeling the sensation of walking since my accident."

Horses are trained to walk rhythmically and slowly, but also to vary their stride as needed. They must sometimes tolerate carrying two riders at a time or riders who do not sit in the traditional position. They must also be able to tolerate being bumped with crutches, canes and wheelchairs and being mounted in different ways.

One example of where hippotherapy is beneficial is for riders with spina bifida. According to Liz Baker, physical therapist, some of the physical and developmental problems associated with spina bifida are very likely to improve through therapeutic riding. Some benefits include development of sitting balance and general improvements to functional life skills, fitness and strength.

Hippotherapy is also beneficial to people with cerebral palsy. It encourages good posture, balance, and flexibility. For children, the horse's movement can help improve the coordination needed for breathing, swallowing and sound production. It also helps strengthen muscles and encourage verbal communication skills. The NARHA states, "For children with cerebral palsy, the horse is a wonderful motivation for speech, while the horse's movement can improve the coordination of breathing, swallowing and sound production. The horse naturally motivates children with cerebral palsy to move, explore and touch."

Other areas in which hippotherapy has proved beneficial include amputations, autism, brain injuries, Down's Syndrome, emotional disabilities, hearing impairments, learning disabilities, mental retardation, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, and visual impairments.

According to the NARHA, "Therapeutic riding can facilitate cognitive and sensorimotor development in childhood, help develop a sense of responsibility, self-confidence and fair play in adolescence and provide life-long recreation and sport. It can do all this while stimulating the good posture, balance and flexibility needed for functional independence off the horse."

Corcoran Physical Therapy notes, "The gallop of a horse can be a soothing feeling for riders of all ages, but it can also be a very valuable tool for physical therapists in the rehabilitation process. It is an experience where men, women and children can feel an unmatched pleasure only these four-legged creatures can provide."

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