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What is Hippotherapy?

Katharine Swan
Katharine Swan

Hippotherapy is roughly translated to horse therapy, as hippo means horse in Greek. However, hippotherapy is not therapy for horses, but therapy for people that uses horses in lieu of the normal physical therapy equipment.

Horse therapy can be used to treat a wide variety of physical disabilities. Although hippotherapy is often confused with therapeutic horseback riding, in reality, it is not the same as simply riding a horse. Just as with any other kind of physical therapy, hippotherapy is guided by a credentialed physical therapist. Also, as in traditional physical therapy, the therapist customizes a treatment plan according to the client’s specific needs. The only difference is that this treatment involves a horse, rather than a room full of equipment.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Hippotherapy is based on the idea that the motion of the horse can help disabled individuals by stimulating parts of the body that they don’t ordinarily use. This may include the sensory system, the circulatory system, the muscles, or the joints. The therapist may guide the client into any position on the horse, not just the normal riding position of straddling the horse’s back. Just as in traditional physical therapy, the therapist leads the client through motions and exercises that are designed to stimulate specific parts of his or her body.

Although therapeutic horseback riding is different from hippotherapy, it is still a valuable part of therapy with horses. Some clients will benefit from therapeutic riding mixed in with hippotherapy, and others will move on to riding as their physical abilities and skills become advanced enough. Unlike hippotherapy, therapeutic riding teaches clients how to ride in a recreational environment. It also benefits clients by teaching them emotional, social, and other mental skills. Therefore, therapeutic horseback riding could be seen as simply a more advanced type of horse therapy.

Hippotherapy is just one type of animal assisted therapy. Animals have often proved to be therapeutic for individuals with disabilities. One important type of animal assisted therapy is visitation, where an animal — often a dog — and its handler visit people who are unable to leave the hospital or their home. Visits from these specially trained animals are very therapeutic for people who can sometimes feel trapped by their disabilities.

Animal assisted therapy demonstrates the importance of the emotional bond between people and animals. This bond is a crucial part of hippotherapy and therapeutic horseback riding, as well. Although therapy with horses has many physical and cognitive benefits for clients, it is often the relationship between horse and rider that makes the experience so rewarding for clients.

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