The Greek word “hippos” means horse and this form of therapy makes use of the specific movements of the horse to heal patients.  It is part of the genres of occupational, physical and speech therapy.  The horse has been considered therapeutic since 460 BCE.
The walk of the horse gives the patient sensory input by its movements, which are rhythmic, repetitive and variable.  The movement responses of a person on a horse mimic the human pelvic bones of the human when walking.  The horse can go slowly or fast and can challenge the patient to have better and better balance.  There are clinical treatments added to the riding so the patient develops strength and stability along with the balance.  This is generally a very enjoyable type of therapy that most patients like.
Hippotherapy can do a lot for the patient, including giving them better posture, balance, mobility and function. There can be psychological effects, cognitive improvement, behavioral improvement and better communication for people of all ages.  People with cerebral palsy, developmental delay, multiple sclerosis and traumatic brain injury can be effectively treated, along with autism, stroke, and speech and language deficits. Hippotherapy, on the other hand, is not for everyone and must be tailored to the needs of each patient.  It is designed to be a specific treatment modality and no riding skills must be learned in the process of doing this form of therapy.
Hippotherapy as a medical discipline was first done in the 1960s, when it was first practiced in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. The treatment was given by a trained physiotherapist along with a trained horse and a trained horse handler.  Directions were given to the horse handler to set the horse on a path with a specific gait, cadence, tempo, and direction.  The idea was to modulate the horse’s movement so as to influence the neuromuscular changes in the patient.  A group of Canadian and American therapists traveled to Germany in the late 1980s in order to develop a standardized Hippotherapy curriculum.  The American Hippotherapy Association was developed in 1992; this is the governing body that has standards of practice and a formal therapist educational program for occupational, physical and speech therapists in the US.
Nowadays, Hippotherapy is sometimes known as equine assisted therapy.  The horse therapy is just one modality for those speech and language, physical, occupational and other therapists.  It is also helpful in the mental health field, where social workers, mental health providers and psychologists use equine assisted psychotherapy as part of their treatment sessions.  In these kinds of sessions, the patient may not even be on the horse during the therapeutic session.
The three dimensional aspect of a horse walking is able to give the patient’s pelvis similar movements as when the patient is walking himself.  Sensory processing and neurological function are improved as the patient feels the movements of the horse.  This can go full circle to improve the patient’s daily activities while off the horse.
Physical therapists use Hippotherapy to improve the patient’s gait training skills.  Occupational therapists use it to improve motor control, balance, attention and improvement in activities of daily living.  In speech and language therapy, Hippotherapy helps accomplish sensory processing, cognitive awareness, speech improvement and swallowing abilities.
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