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Hippotherapy treatment helps children with special needs

Have you ever watched someone ride a horse? Every strain of the horse’s muscles becomes visible, and both rider and horse move in unison. Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell where the horse ends and the human begins.

Boy on horse - Hippotherapy treatment

While the vision is pure muscle and energy, somehow, the horse exudes serenity.

Understanding the majestic power horses yield may help explain the power of hippotherapy, which “refers to the use of the movement of the horse as a treatment strategy by physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech/language pathologists to address impairments, functional limitations and disabilities in patients with neuromotor and sensory dysfunction,” according to the American Hippotherapy Association (AHA).

The word hippotherapy derives from the Greek word hippos, meaning horse. In English, an example of the potential power of hippotherapy is improved mobility. For a child with developmental delays who has trouble walking, incorporating the movement of the horse — hippotherapy — into the child’s plan of care assists in providing neurologic responses that can improve mobility.

An ability to heal

Lori Garone is a physical therapist who also is a board certified clinical specialist in hippotherapy. She explains, “the horse’s movement… access[es a patient’s] central nervous system… by the repetitive and innate rhythm of the horse’s walk.”

Garone says that movement creates “new motor, sensory and speech pathways in the brain” that can help a patient reach developmental, motor and speech goals.

Garone also is coordinating faculty for AHA and an AHA past board director. She says after being around horses her entire life, their ability to heal has never surprised her.

“Incorporating the horse into human rehabilitation certainly is a more natural way for us to heal ourselves in any variety of ways,” she explains.

She emphasizes, “[Hippotherapy] is not riding a horse, nor is it horse therapy or equestrian therapy. It is either physical, occupational or speech therapy, and when a specially trained team of therapist, horse, horse handler and side helper incorporate it into a patient’s therapy, goals are reached faster.”

History of success


Hippotherapy is a treatment strategy that “has been incorporated into patients [Plan of Care] for over 25 years in this country and over 40 years in Germany, Austria and most of Europe,” Garone explains. Garone began a private practice on Long Island, New York, in 1990 called Physical Therapy In Motion, which incorporates hippotherapy into patients’ treatment.

AHA’s website shares testimonials from parents of children who have achieved significant success through treatment with horses. “Hippotherapy is more effective than traditional therapies because horses have a unique ability to motivate children to try new things,” explains the parent of Estevan.

Hippotherapy has become so popular that at Shining Hope Farms in Charlotte, North Carolina, “they added 50 new children from January to March,” shares Kathryn Lariviere, whose son is on a waiting list. They hope to begin treatment this summer.

‘Whatever it takes’

For a parent of a child with Down syndrome, the hint of a promise at progress is compelling enough to pursue hippotherapy even when health insurance provides no coverage.

“I cannot say enough wonderful things about [hippotherapy],” shares Ashley, whose 8-year-old son has Down syndrome and recently began treatment at Horse ”N” Around in Lancaster, South Carolina. “It was expensive for us; insurance did not pay,” she says. “But, when we were there, I always had a moment of: ‘This is worth it, and I will do whatever it takes!'”

As Ashley watched her son interact with his speech therapist (who is trained specifically in hippotherapy), she marveled at his response on various levels, from following commands to talking to and guiding the horse “to get the reward of riding.”

His therapist adapted the treatment plan to his sensory issues, finding a larger and thus stronger horse with a heavier trot. “He didn’t do as well with the smaller horses,” Ashley explains. “He needed the strong input of the bigger horses.”

“He was so at peace there,” she shares. “I loved hearing him talk so much, follow directions, smile and just enjoy the whole atmosphere and experience.”

To find a physical therapist, occupational therapist or speech/language pathologist who is trained in hippotherapy, visit AHA’s resource page.

Top image provided by Lori Garone

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