Health & Care

What Is Hippotherapy? Does It Work?

Hippotherapy is a form of equine assisted therapy, which involves the use of horses to cure bodily and mental dysfunctions in patients.

The movement of a horse’s pelvis bears many similarities to that of a human. When a person sits astride a moving horse, the entire human body jerks with the rhythmic and repetitive movement of the horse, mimicking the act of walking. The horse’s repeated movement causes every nerve in the human body to activate, promoting the stimulation and strengthening of sensory organs.  Studies have shown that with every step a horse takes, thousands of nerve impulses awaken in the rider’s brain. Also, the presence of horses within a vicinity changes the brainwave patterns of humans.

Brief History of Equine Assisted Therapy and Hippotherapy

Writings and studies of early history show the practice and use of horses to treat people with mental diseases. The Ancient Greeks were exceptionally knowledgeable in the act of therapeutic horse riding. Researchers, going through the writings of Hippocrates, discovered documents expounding on the neurological healing effects of equine assisted therapy.

After the 1946 outbreak of poliomyelitis in Scandinavia, equine assisted therapy became a popular method of treatment. Later on, in the 1960s, countries like Germany and Switzerland began to incorporate hippotherapy to augment conventional physical therapy methods. With its increasing effectiveness in treating physical and neurological disabilities, American and Canadian therapists learned and adopted the discipline of hippotherapy and began practicing it in the Americas. In 1992, an official body for hippotherapy called the American Hippotherapy Association (AHA) was set up.  Since then, the use of horses as an integral part of therapy has gained widespread popularity, with many patients cured of mental and physical dysfunctions.

How Does Hippotherapy Work?

Hippotherapy is rehabilitation geared at delivering therapeutic remedies to a patient under the supervision of a physician or therapist. With the use of a trained horse, a therapist helps patients improve balance, core strength, and cognitive systems.

Patients can take different positions while on top of a horse, with every posture stimulating a specific part of the human body. If a person sits on a horse facing forward, the multi-dimensional movement forces the person’s pelvis to undergo a complete range of motions as if they were walking. Consequently, since a horse can take over a hundred steps in 60 seconds, a patient experiences a steady, variable, and repetitive input of motion in a relatively short amount of time. Typically, within 30 minutes of hippotherapy, a patient experiences over 3,000 neuromotor inputs. Consequently, treatment through horse riding is very successful and time-efficient.  


Does Hippotherapy Work?

The use of hippotherapy in treating diseases dates back to ancient times. Consequently, its incredible usefulness has made it a very essential and highly instrumental therapeutic procedure in modern times.

One study performed on 27 patients diagnosed with multiple sclerosis showed that after undergoing hippotherapy twice weekly for three months, the observers discovered significant improvements in the patients’ postural balance and gait.    

In another study, autistic children underwent hippotherapy two times a week for three months. The observed outcome was a dramatic improvement in the sensory perception and physical and social awareness of the kids. When the study came to an end, postural swing became decreased, and an increase in adaptive human behaviors was noticeable.

We’ve explained some significant benefits of hippotherapy below.

Improves Posture and Stabilizes the Core

The rhythmic and varied gait of a horse forces patients to balance their posture in response to the horse’s movement. When the horse is galloping at a slow pace, the riders must stretch their backs to find a proper balance. If the horse picks up speed, the rider has to arch their frame to have a firm grip on the moving horse. Frequent adjustment of horse riding posture, bending, and stretching help patients stabilize their core and develop endurance and balance.

There are several positions therapists may suggest to patients to help develop core strength and correct postural imbalance. Sometimes, a professional therapy expert may have patients sit facing forwards, sideways, or backward on top of a horse. Other times, patients may lie flat along the barrel of a horse. The purpose of this is to target and activate various parts of the human body during therapy.

Improves Reflex

As a horse slows and quickens its tempo, patients automatically adjust to balance themselves to fit the horse’s varied movement. This intuitive, automatic action demands the brain’s full sensory awareness and attention, helping to build a patient’s reflex and attentional skills.

Improves Emotional and Social Awareness

Hippotherapy harnesses the bond between horse and man to explore and better understand the social-emotional requirements of everyday human life. When a patient works together with a horse, they must develop the ability to intuit the horse’s feelings and non-verbal communication by paying detailed attention and watching out for subtle cues and behavioral expressions. Invariably, this builds patients’ social interaction skills, which they carry over to everyday life. Over time, patients undergoing hippotherapy develop the ability to intuit the unconscious actions and social dynamics of human beings. 

Other benefits of hippotherapy include improved flexibility, impulse control, problem-solving skills, and self-actualization.


Does Medicaid Cover Hippotherapy?

The cost for one hippotherapy session ranges from 85 to110 dollars. Individual health insurance providers may entirely or partially cover the cost of hippotherapy.  Medicaid does not cover hippotherapy costs except the federal or state government mandates it. 

Other Forms of Equine Assisted Therapy

Equine Assisted Learning (EAL)

Equine assisted learning is a more specific therapeutic horse program aimed at developing a patient’s self-confidence and perfecting the art of social nuances. When patients interact with horses in EAL programs, they pick up skills and confidence that help them better understand horses— and by extension, humans.

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)

This form of therapy involves the treatment of psychological problems with horses and differs slightly from hippotherapy. The process requires patients to groom and feed horses under the supervision of a psychotherapist who engages and guides them in discovering themselves during the process.

Therapeutic Horseback Riding

Here, a riding instructor teaches a patient horse riding techniques to improve the patient’s stability, balance, core, and posture. It involves the control of a horse both on the ground and while riding.

Hippotherapy has its roots in ancient traditional forms of therapy. Many have attributed the cure of diseases such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and autism to the use of equine assisted therapy. Scientists are digging further to unravel more mysterious benefits of the unique relationship between horse and man.

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