The word hippotherapy is derived from the Greek word "hippo," which means "horse." It describes physical, occupational, or speech therapy that uses the multidimensional movement of a walking horse to optimize the rider and help enhance balance, good posture, mobility, coordination, and strength. Often, hippotherapy aids mental functioning, improves mood and self-confidence as well.
The rhythmic and multidimensional movement of the horse provides variable yet repetitive sensory stimulation to patients. That stimulation can be varied and manipulated by a trained therapist to fit a patient's needs and stimulate improved functioning of daily living. For example, physical therapists can use a variety of horse movements to improve gross motor abilities, such as sitting, standing, and walking.
According to the American Hippotherapy Association, hippotherapy is indicated for children and adults with mild to severe neuromuscular dysfunction. It aids impairments such as abnormal muscle tone; impaired balance, coordination, and sensory function; postural asymmetry; poor postural control; and reduced mobility. Hippotherapy has been used for conditions such as cerebral palsy (CP), developmental delays, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and autism.
Hippotherapy has been used in the US since the 1970's. However, it is still considered an experimental and investigational treatment because there is insufficient scientific evidence for its effectiveness in the treatment of CP, autism, and other conditions characterized by motor dysfunction.
A recent study by Bass, Duchowny, and Llabre (2009) examined the effects of a 12-week-long therapeutic horseback intervention on social functioning in children with autistic spectrum disorder. The results showed improved social interaction and less inattention and distractibility in autistic children. These findings indicate that hippotherapy may have a place in the treatment of children with autism. However, more studies need to demonstrate its therapeutic effectiveness before hippotherapy is highly recommended as a treatment for autism.
Bass, M., Duchowny, C., & Llabre, M. (2009). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39 (9), 1261-7.