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Hippotherapy is an alternative form of therapy that utilizes horses and equine equipment to help children with cerebral palsy develop better physical functioning, as well as assistance with emotional and neurological functioning.
Hippotherapy and Cerebral Palsy
A physician will more than likely recommend traditional forms of therapies to a child with cerebral palsy, such as physical and occupational therapy. These types of therapies help strengthen muscles, improve balance and flexibility, and help your child with everyday living tasks.
However, there are numerous alternative therapies that have proven to also greatly assist children with cerebral palsy, including hippotherapy. Hippotherapy was introduced to the public during the 1960s overseas, but it gradually made its way to the United States after word got out regarding the massive benefits it produces.
Hippotherapy is now recognized as a form of therapy that helps with cognitive ability, neuromuscular problems, physical strength, and a heightened sense of well-being.  Equine equipment is used in hippotherapy which channels a horse’s movements.
Hippotherapy is not the same as therapeutic horseback riding in which children learn to ride horses for numerous benefits. Instead, a therapist uses the characteristics and movements of a horse to help with many issues that children with cerebral palsy experience. The repetition, rhythm, gait, and tempo of a horse’s movements have been proven to help with:
- Visual cues
- Abnormal muscle tone
- Social skills
- Control of the body’s extremities
- Core strength in the trunk
When to Start Hippotherapy
Before starting hippotherapy, you should speak with your child’s physician to ensure that his/her individual mental and physical challenges could benefit from this form of therapy. Furthermore, it’s important to get your physician’s approval that your child’s associated disorders will not increase from the physical challenges of hippotherapy.
If your child can benefit from hippotherapy, there is no set age in which you should start. Children of all ages, ranging from toddlers to teens, participate in hippotherapy. However, keep in mind that hippotherapy is generally not covered under insurance plans and you may need to pay out of pocket for the therapy sessions.
A Typical Hippotherapy Session
Prior to starting the first hippotherapy session, a therapist will assess your child’s physical, emotional, and cognitive strength. This will help determine 1)If your child is ready for hippotherapy and 2) If any accommodations are needed for the child while sitting on the horse.
Afterward, the therapist will explain to you and your child about the importance of safety, including how to properly mount and dismount the horse (with assistance), horse equipment, and what to expect when the horse moves.
Once safety training is completed, a therapist assists and monitors the child during mounting the horse and during the horse’s movements. In almost all instances, the therapist walks alongside the horse and child while helping modify the horse’s movements so that it’s safe for the child.
Each session will consist of similar activities as the child learns to respond to the horse’s natural gait and shifts. This not only builds physical strength and endurance, but helps a child’s well-being and sense of self.
Horse farms created as specialized training areas are typically where hippotherapy sessions take place. If you live in the city, it may be challenging to find a hippotherapy location close by as most farms are located in rural areas.
If you need help, the American Hippotherapy Association, Inc. (AHA) offers a free location service of available hippotherapy facilities across the nation. 
Hippotherapy Therapists and Providers
Professionals who practice hippotherapy are typically physical therapists, speech therapists, or occupational therapists who’ve gone through extensive hippotherapy training and have met the certification requirements.
AHA provides an educational program to help therapists who wish to work in hippotherapy learn the required skills of working with horses and with children with special needs. In general, therapists need to have at least three years of experience in their own field of study, as well as 100 hours of hippotherapy training. Training consists of learning:
- In-depth knowledge of horse movement
- How to handle emergencies
- Safety practices
- The physical characteristics of horses
- The association between human and horse movement
- How to choose the appropriate exercises by each child’s individual needs, and more
Are There Any Risks to Hippotherapy Sessions?
If you’ve gotten approval from your child’s physician and the therapist has ruled out any conditions that would prohibit participation, there usually aren’t any risks involved in hippotherapy. As previously mentioned, a well-trained certified therapist will be with your child at all times to ensure safety.
- Koca, T., & Ataseven, H. (2016, January 15). What is hippotherapy? The indications and effectiveness of hippotherapy. PubMed Central (PMC).
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5175116/
- Welcome to The American Hippotherapy Association, Inc. (n.d.). American Hippotherapy Association Inc.
Retrieved from: https://www.americanhippotherapyassociation.org/