Hippotherapy is a term that refers to a treatment tool utilized by speech therapists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists that requires the purposeful handling of equine movement to engage sensory, neuromotor, and cognitive systems to achieve functional outcomes. The implementation of hippotherapy by a trained clinical professional requires the use of evidence-based practice and clinician reasoning to determine if the child is an appropriate candidate for hippotherapy treatment. Hippotherapy is not a “therapy” on its own but a treatment tool/strategy that can be integrated into the patient’s plan of care, along with other therapy tools and/or strategies. It is recommended by the American Hippotherapy Association, that therapists who wish to incorporate hippotherapy into their treatment plan need to pursue some specialized training. A separate entity, the American Hippotherapy Certification Board (AHCB) provides further certification and training for clinical professionals that purse the use of hippotherapy as a treatment tool which further supports safe and effective use of equine movement as another treatment tool within the clinician’s plan of care.
If hippotherapy is chosen as a recommended treatment tool for your child, it is good to know how it will be used to help your child achieve positive functional outcomes within their plan of care. The decision to implement this treatment strategy is decided by your therapist’s professional skills, specialized training, clinical reasoning skills, and use of evidence-based practice. Each treatment plan will be tailored specifically to each child and created via results of the therapist’s clinical evaluation of your child and their required functional goals. The therapist will not only be evaluating your child but will also evaluate the proper horse/equine for your child to ensure the appropriate movement matches the specific needs of each child. Throughout treatment the clinician will then also continue to monitor your child’s response to the equine’s movements and modify equine movements and equipment to support the child in working towards their functional goals.
Hippotherapy is a treatment tool that has been used for a vast range of disabilities but used most often with individuals who have neurological disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, head injuries, stroke, spinal cord injury, behavioral disorders, decreased sensory regulation, and poor social communication skills. Speech therapists may incorporate the use of hippotherapy to help increase social communication, attention, behavior, and speech articulation skills just to name a few. Through use of hippotherapy, a clinician can provide a learning and engaging environment that is outside the walls of a clinic and goes beyond expecting a child to sit and attend at a table. The incorporation of movement with treatment can help to provide increased input for children which in return allows for increased attention and participation for speech and language development. Results of hippotherapy have shown improvements with patients’ speech, language, communication, vocal intensity, sensory processing and regulation, balance, strength, mobility, gait, and overall participation in daily activities.
When thinking about considering hippotherapy it is important to note that hippotherapy is NOT the same as adaptive and/or therapeutic horseback riding. Adaptive and therapeutic horseback riding are riding lessons that are provided to individuals with special needs that require the use of adaptation to equipment or riding. It is used for recreational purposes, and its goals may address leisure, education, socialization, and fitness. Whereas the main goal of hippotherapy is rehabilitation or habilitation of the individual’s function. Another key factor to note is that hippotherapy can only be provided by a licensed health care provider such as a speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, or a physical therapist.
Casey Banks-Sherer M.A., CCC-SLP