What is Hippotherapy?
“The term hippotherapy refers to how occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech-language pathology professionals use evidence-based practice and clinical reasoning in the purposeful manipulation of equine movement to engage sensory, neuromotor, and cognitive systems to achieve functional outcomes. In conjunction with the affordances of the equine environment and other treatment strategies, hippotherapy is part of a patient’s integrated plan of care.” (http://www.americanhippotherapyassociation.org)
Hippotherapy: A Highly Effective Treatment Strategy
Hippotherapy is highly effective treatment strategy used by specially trained Physical, Occupational and Speech Therapists. At Carlisle Academy our Physical and Occupational Therapists are board certified through the American Hippotherapy Certification Board and represent three out of approximately 100 credentialed therapists worldwide. In contrast to therapeutic or adaptive riding, we offer clinical-based occupational or physical therapy programs delivered by health professionals who have advanced knowledge in how equine systems impact human systems. Therapeutic or adaptive riding is an adaptive recreational program delivered by therapeutic riding instructors with goals that are based on a progression of riding skills, not clinical outcomes.
During treatment, our therapists use the back and movement of the horse to facilitate development or recovery of function. Responses to treatment are typically immediate and easily recognizable by parents and caregivers alike. As the horse’s back provides a three-dimensional moving surface, the gait of the horse simulates human gait and is much more effective than equipment used in a traditional therapy environment. “A survey of therapists providing hippotherapy across the country conducted in 2002 revealed 75% of hippotherapy clients showed functional improvements in sitting, standing, walking, upper extremity tasks and speech and language behavior in only seven weeks.”
Why is this strategy so effective? Soon after birth, our brains develop from a low to high and front to back progression. Research has demonstrated that our brain’s ability to adapt and respond to the challenges related to trauma, disease, aging or developmental conditions exists throughout our life span. The process of brain growth and adaptability is called neural plasticity. With trauma, the brain can re-route around brain damage and form pathways that compensate for damaged tissue. In children, neural plasticity is at peak immediately after birth through 6 years old (hence the importance of early intervention) and continues but narrows as the child ages. Some developmental conditions, like autism, do not follow typical patterns of neural plasticity and, as a result, the child can experience both over and under neural connectivity in different parts of the brain. In addition, research shows that our brains assimilate new information faster when the task is play-based and meaningful.
Within the context of our treatment at Carlisle Academy, hippotherapy patients are engaged in a meaningful, fun activity and are unaware of the adaptive responses going in their bodies and brains. The concept of human to animal bonding has an enormous impact our Occupational and Physical Therapy programs and this correlates directly to our patient outcomes. In addition to forming affirmative bonds with our equine partners, during treatment we adjust the horse’s gait, rider position and movement patterns of the horse, providing each patient with remarkable sensory and motor experiences. As sensory-motor activity is the basis of neural plasticity, we see a profound impact in neurodevelopment and recovery week after week. With advanced knowledge of just how equine systems impact human systems, Carlisle Academy therapists are experts in developing exceptional equine-based therapy programs.
A discussion about animal assisted therapy on MPBN’s Maine Calling program:
More on Hippotherapy:
Click here for information on hippotherapy clinical research.
For an informative piece on hippotherapy as an effective treatment strategy, view American Association of Hippotherapy’s position statement AHA Position Statement.
For more information go to: www.americanhipptherapyassociation.org
“A Retrospective Study of Hippotherapy Patients’ Responses to Treatment”, Nancy H. McGibbon, American Hippotherapy Association, Vol 12, No. 1, Spring 2003