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Equine-assisted therapy or hippotherapy is a type of therapy which integrates horses into the treatment process. It is used in a variety of therapy fields; horses can help people with physical issues, speech problems, behavioral issues, emotional problems, and other disabilities. Therapeutic riding programs can be found all over the world, with most equine-assisted therapy centers having a specific focus. Graduates of such programs often express appreciation for the process, crediting their therapy with some later accomplishments.
Studies have suggested that humans benefit from regular contact with animals, and a number of different species from chickens to elephants are utilized in therapy programs. Many humans have an especially unique and intimate relationship with the horse, thanks to the long association of people and horses. Horses symbolize freedom for many people, and many riders say that they have deep connections with their animals; equine-assisted therapy harnesses the connection between people and horses, for mutual benefit.
In physical therapy, patients develop muscle groups by riding horses. As they grow more confident and experienced, they can respond to subtle changes in the horse's movement, developing core muscles, extending their range of motion, and increasing their overall confidence. Hippotherapy can also be used by speech pathologists, especially in the case of communication disorders with a behavioral component.
Many equine-assisted therapy programs focus on behavioral problems. Horses can serve as a silent intermediary, acting as teachers in facilitated exercises, either in groups or alone. For example, a group of convicts might be asked to solve a problem relating to a horse, such as teaching the horse to run a course of jumps. During the session, the members of the group learn to communicate with each other and to work cooperatively.
Horses are also used in occupational therapy, helping people develop skills which will help them later in life. Equine-assisted therapy can help people communicate, develop fine motor skills, learn to approach problems in new ways, and it can foster understanding and compassion for diverse people and animals. You may also see equine-assisted therapy in programs which are designed to help disabled people and troubled teens, helping them grow confidence in a supportive, friendly environment.
The horses used in equine-assisted therapy receive special training, and they are typically put through a series of extensive tests to ensure that they are suited for the job. A good therapy horse is extremely patient and calm, with the ability to cope with a wide range of people and situations.