What is Hippotherapy?

Little Kid Riding Pony in Lesson

The word hippotherapy is derived from the Greek word hippos, which means horse.  So hippotherapy literally means horse therapy.  This is a form of physical, occupational, speech, and language therapy that incorporates the horse.  Evidence shows that hippotherapy may date back to ancient Greece, however it became a formal treatment in the 1960’s. 


The concept behind hippotherapy is that the horse’s movement aids in a certain physical responses from the rider.  The horse’s pelvis has a similar motion to a human’s pelvis when waking.  The horse’s movement provides physical and sensory data to the rider that is rhythmic and repetitive.  This movement aids in improving neurological function and sensory process.  This can translate into a broad range of activities that can address certain therapy goals.


In addition to hippotherapy, which aids in physical therapy outcomes, there is therapeutic horseback riding that encompasses a wide range of therapies.  Tasks such as grooming aids in a wide range of joint movement and has a relaxing effect.  Other physical benefits include, but are not limited to, improved muscle strength, balance, muscle control, range of motion, and motor skills.  There are also many psychological benefits.  These benefits include, but are not limited to, self-esteem, confidence, relaxation, and patience. 


The success of hippotherapy and therapeutic horseback riding is based from person to person.  The success of the therapy can be determined through a variety factors which include type of disability, motivation of the rider, and the connection between horse and rider.  However, unlike exercise machines that focus on one muscle group at a time, the riding makes the rider focus on their entire body as well as their surroundings. 


There are many exercises performed to help aid a rider.   They include mounting and dismounting, proper posture, various stretching exercises, standing, and sitting the trot.  In more advanced lessons exercises may include riding without stirrups, riding independently, cantering, and trotting over poles. 


Therapeutic riding also offers a great opportunity for volunteers.  There is always loads of volunteer options when running a therapy program.  The jobs include, but are not limited to, horse leader or side walker.  A horse leader helps the lesson by helping to guide the horse.  A side walker walks alongside the horse and aids in maintaining rider position and safety throughout the lesson.  Volunteer work is always rewarding and horse experience is not always needed.


There is a Hippotherapy Clinical Specialty Certification (HPCS) designed for therapists that want to be specifically training in hippotherapy.  Therapists that study for three years and have 100 hours of hippotherapy practice are permitted to take the certification examination.  Those who pass can use the HPCS designation.  The certification is good for five years.  After five years, you either have to retake the test or show evidence of 120 hours of continuing education. 


Overall there is something for everyone in the exciting field of hippotherapy, whether rider, therapist, or volunteer.