Hippotherapy refers to the purposeful manipulation of equine movement as a tool to engage sensory, neuromotor, and cognitive systems to promote functional outcomes. Therapists use evidence-based practice and clinical reasoning to make these changes. Hippotherapy is not a special discipline, but rather a treatment technique that is integrated into the patient's plan of care, much like aquatic therapy, body weight support treadmill training, LSVT or other common types of rehabilitation treatments.
Occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech language pathology professionals may integrate hippotherapy into their practice, while working within their scope of practice.
Strength, muscle coordination, and sensory processing used for walking, talking, and the use of fine motor skills, and general attention have all been shown to be positively impacted by equine movement. Clients often demonstrate increased motivation and participation in treatment. Social and emotional benefits have also been reported. Research is showing that increasing exposure to neuromotor inputs is powerful in facilitating the key neuromotor systems that support physical function. Horses provide hundreds more neuromotor inputs in 5 minutes than we can achieve in a traditional therapy setting. In 15-25 minutes of equine movement, a client will experience 1,500 to 2,500 neuromotor inputs. That's easily double the opportunity for practice than what is available in a traditional occupational therapy, physical therapy, or speech language pathology session. Equine movement that is skillfully applied by a therapist can facilitate complex motor learning and is a powerful tool for the facilitation of key neuromotor systems that support function. There is a growing body of clinical research that supports the value of hippotherapy as a tool in facilitating positive functional outcomes in clients who demonstrate neuromotor and cognitive/communication deficits.
Anyone who is medically cleared by a physician and who has a condition that would be helped by hippotherapy is a candidate. Our physical therapists complete screenings to determine if a client is an appropriate candidate for hippotherapy. We do not accept clients under the age of 2 at this time. Examples of impairments and functions that can be addressed by hippotherapy are (non-exhaustive list): sensorimotor regulation, balance, coordination, mobility, communication, speech and language, muscle tone, postural control, postural asymmetry/spinal dysfunction, motor control, oral motor function, and arousal. Examples of diagnoses or medical conditions that our clients have (non-exhaustive list): autism spectrum/ASD, sensory processing disorder/SPD, chromosomal abnormalities or deletion, cerebral palsy/CP, developmental delay, functional spinal curvature, multiple sclerosis/MS, neuromuscular dysfunction, brain injury, CVA/Stroke, and spinal cord injury/SCI.
If hippotherapy is deemed appropriate clients will spend part of the session on the horse, and part of the session off the horse "over ground". The therapist will decide how much time is spent on the horse, and how much time is spent over ground. This decision is based on the client's ability to tolerate being on the horse, client's behavior on the horse, the horse's behavior, and safety. Most of our clients get tired after 10-30 minutes on the horse because they are getting more than double the intensity that they would in a regular therapy session. After dismounting, clients will participate in the over ground portion in order to integrate the muscular, sensory, and neurological changes that occurred on the horse into daily life.
No. The goal of hippotherapy is not to learn how to ride, it is to improve a person's physical functioning through manipulation of equine movement. If learning to ride is a goal, please investigate the therapeutic riding services offered by our partner farms. Clients can participate in hippotherapy and therapeutic riding concurrently.
No. Clients will be on a horse that is led by a person trained in how to change the speed and quality of the horse's movement in order to challenge the client's muscular, sensory, and neurologic systems. There will be 1-2 people walking alongside the horse to help position clients and engage them in activities designed to target their particular impairments.
Safety is our top priority. Just like with any healthcare intervention there is always a risk of injury. In addition to the traditional risks, horses are animals with their own minds. This can create an element of unpredictability. We only partner with facilities that have horses trained for hippotherapy. Our therapists, and volunteer teams are trained in proper horse management, how to recognize and respond to potential danger, and how to manage the horse, and our clients, in the event of an emergency.
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