Hippotherapy: Horses for Healing?

I just heard about a program that uses horses to help handicapped kids. What can you tell me about this type of therapy?

– February 28, 2007

You’re referring to "hippotherapy," a term that means treatment with the help of a horse. It is designed for people who have problems with balance, posture, mobility and even psychological, behavioral and communication functions because of such disorders as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, stroke, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and even learning disabilities or language problems.

Hippotherapy is not merely recreation for the handicapped. It has specific therapeutic goals. Treatment takes advantage of a horse’s natural rhythmic and repetitive movements to help improve patients’ muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination, strength, flexibility and cognitive skills. In addition, the horse’s movements can improve responses in patients that are needed for walking.

Physical and occupational health therapists who have special training also offer hippotherapy to their patients, and mental health professionals and their patients may work with certified riding instructors in equine facilitated psychotherapy. Here, the goal is to provide experiences that promote self-esteem, awareness of others, and better trust and social skills.

Although this form of therapy appears to be growing, I could only find 26 medical studies on the subject, suggesting that we have a lot to discover about its specific effects. To learn more about it, I suggest visiting Pet Partners’ website (http://www.petpartners.org/). You’ll also find useful information there about animal assisted therapy in general, a trend that appears to be accelerating.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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