Pioneered by German, Swiss and Austrian therapists during the 1960’s, then standardized in the United States and Canada during the 1980’s, the treatment strategy of hippotherapy (“hippo” is the Greek word for “horse” ) has evolved into a highly valued form of physical, occupational and speech therapy for children with cerebral palsy. In numerous cases it has resulted in dramatic improvements to both motor skills and emotional well-being.
Hippotherapy programs have been developed for children of all degrees of motion and ability. While some facilities have been created specifically for hippotherapy, most programs take place on full range horse farms led by a team of therapists, including a physical therapist, a horse handler and sometimes a speech/language therapist. Physical therapists can receive board certification from the American Hippotherapy Association. They are there to guide and monitor the child for issues of balance and control. The horse handler is there to ensure safety and provide basic riding instruction to both child and parent.
The driving principle behind hippotherapy is that the horse is influencing the client, rather than the client endeavoring to control the horse. (There are no age limits to hippotherapy, but for purpose of this article we are talking specifically about children with CP.) The child is positioned on the horse by a physical therapist and horse handler. By responding to the horse’s natural (yet carefully monitored) movements, the child involuntarily activates neglected muscle groups to sit up straighter, maintain better balance and motor plan new movements. That’s the mechanics of it. But as most anyone involved with hippotherapy will assure you, there’s also the less tangible, but equally therapeutic bond that develops between child and horse.
In the process of riding, the child will naturally match the rhythms established by the horse’s movement. The horse’s pelvic movements actually mirror that of the human pelvis. The walking horse literally moves the body of the child in a more natural walking pattern than they are probably used to. Consistent riding often leads to improved muscle tone, motor function and overall sense of balance.
With the help of a speech therapist, the simple verbal commands given by the horse handler to control the horse are progressively given over to the child. Many speech therapists rate this particular discipline as one of the most successful they’ve encountered. The process and results of this process can be very empowering for the child, improving their overall level of self-esteem and sense of well-being.
Hippotherapy is not appropriate treatment for every single child with cerebral palsy, but it might be something to consider and discuss with your child’s physical therapist and pediatrician. Unfortunately at this time, very few health insurance plans cover this type of therapy.
As with all physical endeavors, there are some risks when working with large animals. To ensure safety, your child must be able to digest and follow simple rules of instructions from the horse handler. Make sure that you’re working with the right people and see that your child is properly outfitted, including a well-fitting helmet and body padding.
Hippotherapy is a fascinating process, one that has yielded tremendous results. Is it right for you and your child? The potential benefits make it at least worth an investigation.