What is Hippotherapy?

Hippotherapy is a term for an intervention used by physical therapists, occupational therapists, and/or speech language pathologists within a medical practice. Hippotherapy is a treatment strategy that utilizes equine movement as part of an integrated treatment plan to engage the neuromotor, sensory, and cognitive systems to achieve functional outcomes. Therapists use the unique movement of the horse to address the patient’s various functional needs, such as impairments in strength, balance, coordination, postural control, and motor planning. Hippotherapy does not teach horseback riding skills, but rather addresses medical goals that are geared towards independence and safety with functional activities and improved participation in the home and community settings.

Why does Hippotherapy work?

During walking, the horse’s pelvis moves in a similar 3-D pattern to that of the human pelvis during a typical walking pattern. When a human is sitting astride a horse, this 3-D movement is imparted on the patient from the horse’s movement and simulates the pattern of a typical walking pattern. The movement of the horse is repetitive, predictable, and rhythmic, much like human walking, and has not yet been replicated in the clinical setting. During a typical treatment session, a patient can experience upwards of 2000 “steps” or repeated movement and balance challenges. This volume allows the patient the opportunity to practice and refine their balance reactions, allowing for improved postural control and core stabilization necessary for typical gait.

During a therapy session using hippotherapy, the licensed therapist harnesses this therapeutic quality of the horse’s movement and modifies it further to address the specific functional needs of each of their patients. Tempo, rhythm, velocity, amplitude of balance challenges, muscles activated, sensory stimuli, and much more can all be manipulated and carefully delivered in the form of equine movement to challenge each patient’s sensory, motor, and cognitive skills.

In addition to the unique movement of the horse, hippotherapy is FUN! Therapy using hippotherapy allows kids (and adults!) to work on their functional movement goals in a unique, holistic, and fun outdoor setting which is different from the traditional clinic setting many of our families are used to in the therapy world. This can allow patients to better engage and participate in therapy activities and receive the maximum therapeutic benefit from each therapy treatment session.

Who can benefit from Hippotherapy?

Hippotherapy has been shown to be a valuable treatment option for individuals with:

  • Impaired muscle tone (hypotonia and/or hypertonia)
  • Impaired postural control
  • Impaired postural alignment and symmetry
  • Impaired core and proximal strength
  • Impaired coordination
  • Impaired sensorimotor function
  • Impaired range of motion
  • And MORE!

Diagnoses that respond well to hippotherapy are:

  • Developmental Delay
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Genetic Disorders and Syndromes
  • Down Syndrome
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Autism
  • Paraplegia
  • And many many MORE!

Hippotherapy vs. Therapeutic Riding

Hippotherapy is an intervention, used by Physical therapists, Occupational Therapists and Speech Language Pathologists in their clients’ comprehensive plan of care. They use the horse’s movement to address specific functional impairments such as walking, sitting balance, and speech production. Therapeutic riding is adaptive horseback riding for people with a variety of abilities and needs. Therapeutic riding teaches horseback riding skills, horse grooming, and other horse related care skills. Therapeutic riding is also often done in small groups, to promote improved social and play skills. Therapeutic riding is taught by certified therapeutic riding instructors who have extensive horse experience, and experience working with people with special needs. Although clients will experience the therapeutic benefits of being around horses and of the equine movement, the focus of the lessons are not functional skill development, but instead on developing equestrian and social skills. Generally, Dr. Erin O’Mahony recommends starting with Hippotherapy for younger kiddos (2-6 years old) with gross motor challenges, and then graduating to Therapeutic Horseback Riding for participation in a lifelong sport!