Hippotherapy is a treatment in which horses are used to help individuals with developmental and cognitive disabilities improve their communication, social, and motor skills.
Autistic children can highly benefit from this type of therapy due to the emotional and sensory experiences that come with riding and taking care of horses.
Keep reading to find out more about hippotherapy and the ways it can support your child with autism in achieving developmental goals.
What Is Hippotherapy?
Hippotherapy is a horse-aided therapy. Horse movements provide motor and sensory inputs that are used in the treatment of conditions ranging from autism spectrum disorder and cerebral palsy to attention deficit disorder and developmental delays.
The term hippotherapy comes from the Greek word “hippos” meaning horse. In ancient Greece, therapeutic horse riding was used for treating neurological conditions as well as improving joint movement, posture, and balance.
Equine therapy was introduced in Scandinavia after an outbreak of polio in 1946, and it was formally developed in the United States and Canada two decades later.
How does hippotherapy work?
Hippotherapy is a multimodal form of intervention. In other words, it includes many different types of activities based around horses:
- Changing positions on a moving horse
- Sitting sideways or backward on a horse
- Holding balance when the horse suddenly stops
- Playing games while sitting on a horse
- Engaging in situational role plays
- Listening to the therapist and following the instructions
- Communicating while on the horse or off the horse
- Taking on and removing the helmet
- Grooming and feeding the horse
- Helping tidy the barn.
During a typical hippotherapy session, the child sits on a horse while the therapist guides the horse’s movement. Those movements stimulate the development of neural connections in the child’s brain that help with motor and language development. Adjusting to the horse’s movements helps facilitate a range of abilities from muscular coordination to respiratory control and attentional skills. What’s more, during this form of therapy, children with autism often create an emotional bond with the horse that encourages them to perform various skill-building tasks.
By combining different types of activities, the therapist will provide the optimal sensory and neurological input for your child. The therapist will then analyze the child’s responses and adjust the treatment along the way.
What types of horses are used for hippotherapy?
Therapy horses are carefully selected for their temperament and the type of movement they produce. Among the most frequently used horses for hippotherapy are calm, gentle, and even-tempered American quarter horses. They must have good walking gaits and symmetrical motion to exercise the child’s muscles evenly during sessions. Hippotherapy horses are specially trained for therapy sessions with autistic children.
Hippotherapy vs. therapeutic riding
Hippotherapy is a form of equine-assisted therapy. Equine-assisted therapies encompass a range of treatments involving horses and other equine animals and can be classified as:
- Therapeutic horseback riding
- Equine-assisted learning
- Equine-assisted psychotherapy
- Interactive vaulting where children perform movements on and around a horse
- Therapeutic carriage driving for anyone who is not able or willing to ride
- Equine-assisted activities like horse grooming and stable management.
Hippotherapy is not to be confused with therapeutic riding which consists of recreational horseback riding lessons adapted to individuals with disabilities. Hippotherapy, on the contrary, focuses on the rhythmic and repetitive walk of the horse which serves as a foundation for improving the sensory processing and skills of a child with autism.
What professionals provide hippotherapy?
Hippotherapy is a medically prescribed treatment provided by occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech-language pathology professionals.
It is important to keep in mind that hippotherapy is not a separate program. It is combined with other standard therapy tools and strategies devised in your child’s intervention plan. Hippotherapy is often used in cases where traditional treatments have not been successful. Adding horse-assisted therapy to an existent treatment routine has been proven to significantly increase the well-being of autistic children.
Is Hippotherapy Effective for Children With Autism?
Research suggests that hippotherapy has a positive impact on communication and social skills among children with autism spectrum disorder. A study on the effect of equine-assisted therapy on social functioning found that autistic children who rode horses as part of therapy showed improvements in social skills after only twelve weeks. The results of another study on the impact of hippotherapy on children with autism confirm that the equine interaction is highly effective when it comes to enhancing social and communication skills.
In addition to improvements in social and communication competencies, hippotherapy is beneficial in many other areas. It has been shown to significantly improve balance, sensory responsiveness, motor skills, and adaptive behaviors of autistic children in the home and school settings.
Creating emotional bond
Children with autism often have difficulties creating an emotional bond with others. They may find it hard to make eye contact, communicate their feelings, and connect to those they care about.
Autistic children who participate in hippotherapy benefit from the special connection they develop with the horse. Communication with a horse is physical rather than verbal—the child can brush, hug and pat it. This unique emotional bond encourages the child to form an attachment to others, something that they may otherwise find challenging. When caring for their horse, children associate the care they provide with feelings, a connection that they can apply to their interaction with family and friends.
Many children on the autism spectrum are unable to integrate their senses and understand how their bodies relate to the external world. Hippotherapy is a great way to help them gain a sense of body-awareness while improving sensory integration.
Because being on a horse or in the horse environment is a sensation-rich experience, autistic children can largely benefit from the integration of their motor, visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile senses. Riding provides strong sensory stimulation to muscles and joints, hugging and patting the horse offers a tactile experience, while hearing the horse’s neigh and smelling the barn impact other senses.
Cognitive and language skills development
Autistic children may find it challenging to follow directions. During hippotherapy, however, they are often motivated to communicate both with the therapist and the horse. They learn to follow directions through fun activities that make instructions easier to grasp and remember. At the same time, giving the horse direction provides another opportunity to communicate.
Other benefits of hippotherapy
Hippotherapy may help children with autism learn a variety of skills that they can apply in their daily life, and encourage them to start participating in activities they used to avoid.
Some of the numerous physical and psychological benefits hippotherapy has for autistic children include:
- Develop balance and coordination
- Improve posture and flexibility
- Gain new sensory skills
- Improve memory, concentration, and attention to tasks
- Improve motor planning
- Relax tight muscles
- Build muscle strength
- Increase respiratory control
- Improve fine motor coordination
- Refine hand-eye coordination
- Gain self-control and self-confidence
- Get a better sense of body-awareness
- Improve socialization skills
- Build resilience to change
- Improve listening skills
- Learn more appropriate ways to interact with peers.
Encouraging Your Autistic Child Through Hippotherapy
There are several ways in which you can encourage your autistic child through a hippotherapy program:
- Be prepared. Let your child know exactly what to expect from the new therapy. You may want to use social stories—individualized short stories that depict a social situation that your child may encounter, in this case, hippotherapy—and other visual aids to facilitate the transition to a new activity.
- Be consistent. Children with autism spectrum disorder tend to do best when they have a highly-structured schedule or routine. Try to keep any disruptions to the new routine to a minimum. If there is an unavoidable schedule change, prepare your child well in advance.
- Be positive. Hippotherapy should be a pleasant experience and something your child looks forward to every time.
- Be mindful of your child’s needs. Take into account any sensory issues your child might have, such as sensitivities to light, sound, touch, taste, and smell, for example. Try to avoid any sensory inputs that may trigger your child’s disruptive behaviors until the new routine is well established.
Hippotherapy Programs for Autistic Children in Atlanta
There is no shortage of top-rated hippotherapy programs to choose from in the Atlanta area. Here are just a few:
- Beyond Limits Therapeutic Riding
- Chastain Horse Park Therapeutic Program
- McKenna Farms
- MyHeroes Therapy
- Parkwood Farms Therapy Center
- Stride Ahead
Other useful resources: