Unbridled Enthusiasm for a Growing Type of Developmental Rehabilitation: Hippotherapy

by Beverly Hersh

Morgan was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 3, one of 10,000 children to be diagnosed with the disorder that year. Doctors had a grim outlook, telling her parents she would probably never be able to walk on her own. Not to be defeated, Morgan’s parents decided to try a novel form of rehabilitation that’s proving to be more successful than many parents could have ever anticipated.

It’s called hippotherapy. Fondly nicknamed “hippo” after the Greek word for horse, this form of rehabilitation is an all-inclusive speech, physical, and occupational therapy strategy that many parents of disabled children are rushing to try. This innovative type of treatment utilizes the unique movement of horses to affect the posture, muscle tone, and balance of patients with medical disorders such as autism, cerebral palsy, sensory integration disorders, and other neuromuscular conditions. The treatment has shown that it is capable of largely improving the impairments of a child’s mental and physical disabilities, including abnormal muscle tone, apraxia, sensory processing disorders, and gait abnormalities.

Those of us who aren’t familiar with horseback riding might be surprised at the incredible amount of strength it takes to maintain balance and posture on a moving horse. Similar muscle groups that are used for walking are used tenfold to stabilize a rider. Hippotherapy achieves its results by employing the rhythmic and repetitive movements of a horse as compulsion to exercise these muscles. The beneficial posture that these movements induce improves speech and communication capabilities because improved posture, as the largest factor affecting breath support, directly correlates to speech capabilities. At the same time, adjusting to compensate for the horse’s movements encourages the patient’s sensorimotor skills. For example, the patient can sit; lay forward, backward or sideways; stand in the stirrups; or lay on their stomach. Patients are assisted by trained therapists who change the rider’s position on the horse to address various other therapeutic goals specific to a certain patient’s needs. Games are integrated into the riding session, such as stretching or catch, to further encourage the patient’s motor and cognitive skills.

Morgan’s cerebral palsy nearly eliminated her ability to understand her own body’s position in relation to itself and to her environment, a sense known as proprioception. Being placed on a large moving animal triggers sensory processing that addresses not only the problem of proprioception, but simultaneously addresses deficits in tactile, visual, and auditory systems. The ability of one treatment to elicit the use of the neurological systems that are most affected by mental disabilities is what prompted Morgan’s parents to seek out the unconventional therapy.

They were lucky enough to discover Rocking Horse Rehab, an all-inclusive rehabilitation center located at Essex Equestrian Center in West Orange, New Jersey. Rocking Horse Rehab specializes in treating children with an array of mental and physical disabilities using hippotherapy, along with other occupational therapies. Over the course of five years of regular hippotherapy sessions, Morgan grew from a defeated patient, who needed constant assistance, to an encouraged youngster taking independent steps with her walker. Her mother credits Rocking Horse Rehab and hippotherapy for her daughter’s miraculous improvement.

What is it about hippotherapy that makes it such a successful treatment? Well, the innovation in muscle stimulation and sensory processing is a huge part of it, but so is the emotional bonding between patients and horses. According to Rocking Horse Rehab certified pathologist Kathy Lutz, “Equine assisted therapies help students develop mindfulness, being ‘in the moment.’” The bond between horse and rider has not been thoroughly researched, but the parents of many disabled children can see a tangible difference in the way their kids interact with others as they progress through a hippotherapy program. Animal therapy is a widely accepted form of emotional rehabilitation because it encourages patients to interact with living creatures without fearing judgment or comparative resentment. Morgan’s parents have suggested that interacting with horses has taught her how to emotionally connect, something she struggles with due to the effects of cerebral palsy.

Furthermore, the interactions with animals make the therapy sessions more engaging for the patients. Morgan’s mother has said that Morgan doesn’t think of hippotherapy as “therapy,” but as an enjoyable experience she looks forward to every week. The enthusiasm that the children have for hippotherapy only enhances their progress; when patients are more excited about an activity, they are more likely to improve.

The multidimensional treatment of hippotherapy simultaneously stimulates the bodies, minds, and moods of young disabled children, making it an extremely effective therapy, and one that children thoroughly enjoy. Morgan’s improvement was so significant that she was able to move on from hippotherapy to assisted horseback riding lessons. The developmental impact of horses has affected the lives of so many families who have chosen to try hippotherapy treatment. These success stories are little miracles that have allowed families to appreciate the power these majestic animals can bestow on kids who just want to go for a ride.