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Hippotherapy: How horses help people heal

A unique combination of therapies, hippotherapy provides physical and mental health benefits for children and adults

Hippotherapy, the use of horseback riding for therapeutic purposes, was first mentioned in writings by Hippocrates, the notorious father of modern medicine. Despite the long history of use, the medical practice wasn’t acknowledged until the 1960’s when doctors began using the movement of the horse to stimulate muscle development in patients.

(Photo via Tina Phillips)

Based on the fact that a horse’s pelvic movement is similar to that of a human’s, physical therapists use the unique motion to energize the muscles of children who lack the ability to move on their own. Therapists have noted muscle improvements in gross motor skills like walking, sitting, and standing in patients undergoing hippotherapy treatment. Any horseback rider can attest to the need for balance while riding, and learning to balance is one of the cruxes of treatment.

With all the positive physical benefits, it wasn’t long before the medical world realized the mental benefits were just as substantial. On a horse, children who lacked the ability to move can suddenly do so; they can go where they want as fast as they want. The feeling is truly liberating. It is such a positive experience therapists use the time to work on speech and communication skills. Sensory skills also benefit, and patients learn to be attentive and must focus on fine motor movements while riding.  All in all, hippotherapy combines physical, occupational, and speech therapy into one entirely positive session.

The American Hippotherapy Association shares the testimonial of Estevan, a little boy in a hippotherapy program:

“The world outside one’s own home can be a cruel reminder that the disabled continue to have a hard time fitting in. Hippotherapy is more effective than traditional therapies because horses have a unique ability to motivate children to try new things. The therapy team is also instrumental in tailoring the program to meet a child’s particular needs. Fear is a looming threat — Fear of exclusion; fear of disappointment, fear of failure; fear of pain; fear of risk taking and fear of the unknown. Hippotherapy provides a safe, supportive environment in which Estevan and us (his parents) can let go of some of our fears. Hippotherapy gives Estevan ‘Joie de Vivre’, Joy of living. Estevan is, in a word, Joyful.”

Hippotherapy is currently used to treat autism, Asperger’s, arthritis, brain injuries, spinal injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, behavioral disorders, and psychiatric disorders.