This week we will explore the world of Hippotherapy. Despite the way it sounds, we are not using the hippopotamus for therapeutic purposes - although I would like to see that!
Hippotherapy, quite literally, means “horse therapy.” Hippotherapy programs are often thought to be within the realm of physical, occupational and speech/language therapies, but current research is beginning to hint at the notion that riding a horse also promotes mental health. As one who gets moody if she misses her barn time, I can definitely attest to that!
So, how does climbing aboard a horse help a person with a physical or developmental disability? Believe it or not, it has been determined that horses and humans walk in a surprisingly similar manner. The horse’s pelvis apparently exhibits the same three-dimensional movement that a human’s pelvis goes through at the walk. Therefore, when riding a horse at the walk, a person’s body goes through basically the same motions it would if the person were walking on the ground. The only exception, of course, is that the rider’s legs bear no weight. Nevertheless, horseback riding provides a way to strengthen muscles that may not otherwise be used.
There is a significant amount of research dedicated to the effectiveness of Hippotherapy – but don’t confuse it with Therapeutic Horsemanship. Hippotherapy utilizes the horse’s movement as a treatment strategy. The rider can be active (in control of the horse’s movement) or passive (a passenger while someone on the ground leads the horse). On the other hand, the goal of Therapeutic Horsemanship is to teach and improve horseback riding skills. It seems that most therapeutic riding programs would naturally incorporate some Hippotherapy techniques, but it is important to note the distinction.
What about the mental health benefits associated with Hippotherapy? Well, the jury is still out, at least according to the world of research. However, there is an abundance of supporting anecdotal evidence. To me, this makes sense because improved mental health status is often subjective and qualitative in nature. It seems that using Hippotherapy techniques as part of the overall counseling process could help improve a client’s life, especially if the client is dealing with physical issues. For example, consider a case where the client suffered from back pain that contributed to bouts of depression. Counseling sessions were held with the client in the saddle, walking the horse in an arena. Horseback riding helped to strengthen her core muscles and alleviate the pain, while talk therapy helped alleviate her symptoms of depression. The two strategies combined had a great result.
I have also witnessed the mental health benefits first hand by watching the dramatic improvement in a young boy with autism. He is non-verbal and mostly non-responsive to his environment. We put him on a horse and it was like a light switch turned on. His face lit up and he engaged with the side walkers helping him stay on the horse. After a few sessions, he was participating in games and social skills activities. His parents reported that his “presence” remains for a short while after dismounting. While I cannot put any numbers or hard data to that story just yet, it is still convincing!
Next time we will delve more into the world of Therapeutic Horsemanship!
Here are some great resources to find out more about Hippotherapy:
American Hippotherapy Association: www.americanhippotherapyassociation.org
Children’s Theraplay Foundation: www.childrenstheraplay.org/hippotherapy-vs-therapeutic-riding
Lisa Krystosek is a counselor in St. Louis, Missouri. She specializes in Equine-Facilitated Counseling to help adults, adolescents and children improve their lives. To contact Lisa, please visit www.lisakrystosek.com.