Throughout history horses have helped us improve the quality of our lives. They have been used for transport, entertainment, sport, police and military work, and before farming became highly mechanised, they worked the land with us. The word, ‘Hippotherapy’, comes from the Greek – hippos, meaning horse and the horse’s most recent role is as a therapeutic aid to the disabled.
The original model for hippotherapy was practiced in Germany from the 1960s. Since then it has been used with considerable success by occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech therapists to help disabled adults and children. Simply put, hippotherapy is the medical application of the horse’s movement to help address limitations, impairments and disabilities in people with neuromotor and sensory dysfunction.
A horse’s movement is variable, rhythmical and repetitive. It is this that influences the patient who passively responds to the movement and interacts with it. The qualified therapist can study the patient’s response and adjust the way that the horse moves accordingly. As the horse moves it provides a dynamic supportive base which helps to increase a patient’s strength and control, balance and posture. The movement also helps with the development of fine motor skills, bilateral coordination, cognition, visual motor skills and attention. The patient must perform small, subtle adjustments in order to keep balanced and remain stable as the horse speeds up or slows down, lengthens or shortens its stride pattern. During this process the therapist can work on specific targets to aid the patient’s development through carefully graded activities.
Hippotherapy is also useful in addressing sensory processing issues. Input is provided to the proprioceptive, tactile, visual, vestibular and auditory systems and the occupational therapist is able to incorporate the horse’s movement in preparation for a therapy or treatment goal that will ultimately lead to functional activity.
In addition to hippotherapy, there are other therapies in which horses are involved. Interaction with horses through grooming, handling, riding and driving can help to increase self-awareness and can benefit therapeutic work on other interpersonal aspects as part treatment programmes for patients with mental health issues, learning disabilities and autism.
Hippotherapy is particular successful in the treatment of children. The sessions are enjoyable and the interaction with the horse can act as a great motivational tool for children who would otherwise avoid actively participating in their treatment regimen.
There is a great movement worldwide to encourage people with disabilities to participate in dressage and even the most severely disabled can achieve Olympic gold medal glory as was demonstrated at the London 2012 Games. Many disabled children have been inspired to incorporate regular riding lessons into their therapy programmes and the Riding for the Disabled Association has never been as popular as it is today.