What is hippotherapy? 

Hippotherapy refers to how occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech-language pathology professionals use the movement of a horse as a treatment tool to improve patient outcomes for conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, stroke, and various traumatic injuries just to name a few. During physiotherapy, the horse is controlled by a handler while the patient performs various exercises and different movements that are recommended by the therapist. The term hippotherapy originates from the Greek word, “hippos” meaning horse (or equine), and roughly translates as “treatment with the help of the horse”.

How does hippotherapy differ from horseback riding and therapeutic riding? 

Hippotherapy does not teach the patient how to ride a horse and can only be used by a qualified therapist.

Horseback riding, or even traditional therapeutic riding, teaches the rider how to be a better horseback rider. Of course, learning how to ride a horse can certainly be therapeutic and have health benefits, learning how to ride a horse is not the goal of hippotherapy. For example, a therapeutic riding instructor may ask their rider to ride with their arms outstretched. The goal of this exercise is to teach the rider how to communicate with the horse by using their seat and legs more. In hippotherapy, the same exercise may be used, but the goal will be different. The patient may have trouble sitting upright on their own, and this same exercise will help them to develop core strength needed to help them sit upright without assistance. It does not matter if they learn to ride a horse better.

What are the benefits of hippotherapy?

*Shorten recovery times from injuries.

* Improve balance, posture, and muscle control of patients. The slow and rhythmic movements of the horse help to improve muscle strength and balance.

*Improve bone strength. The horse’s movements have more of an impact on bone turn over and regeneration than traditional therapy can have alone.

* Improve verbal and communication skills.

* Improve confidence, anxiety and overall mental health.

*Patients respond and have quicker outcomes to hippotherapy because working with horses is more fun for them and they are more likely to continue therapy.

 Can any horse be used for hippotherapy?

Hippotherapy horses are very special, and not just any horse can qualify. Hippotherapy horses are carefully selected for their temperament, movement and conformation. They must have calm even gaits. The movement of the horse is combined with exercises and games to enhance treatment outcomes. Those who look after the horses have reported visible improvements and quick results from their clients:

Caitlin Baillie who owns a therapy riding business called Ride and Thrive reported that: “I found the children with autism just literally thrived, they spoke more, were more relaxed, and more confident. I had a boy who barely spoke at all. He went to speech therapy, and his mum said he spoke more on my Gemma than at speech therapy! I’ve also had many many others with all sorts of issues, physical and mental, as in depression grief and anxiety. All came out so so much better!’’

Parents of children have also seen wonderful improvements in their children: Margaret, whose daughter has a rare condition called Rett Syndrome, observed that “Melissa’s balance and grip are better. She is more confident to walk on different surfaces like grass and gravel.”

Ask your therapist if hippotherapy would be beneficial to you or your family.


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