Is a horse the best therapist?

To young people with a physical disability one of the most crushing aspects of the life imposed on them is their lack of ability to engage in "normal" activities. But some children have discovered some hope from an unlikely source, horses. More and more parents are enlisting their children in hippotherapy, which uses natural movements of the horse as a tool for physical, occupation, and sometimes speech therapy. Unfortunately, because it is not the easiest thing to measure with concrete statistics, health insurance rarely covers hippotherapy. But many parents are convinced of it's value nonetheless. Apparently, focusing on the repetitive motions of a horse's walk can actually help humans change their own movement.

This is hardly an unpracticed experiment. Hippotherapy has been used in Europe since the 1960's, and came to America in the 1970's. Therapists have also been able to individually tailor the movement of a particular horse to mimick the change in movement they wish to achieve with the patient. Occupational therapist Colleen Zanin explains that "The horse is custom-made to give rhythmical dynamic input to the flexors and extensors of the trunk, and even the obliques that give you rotation. It's just a beautiful tool." An experimental group with muscular spasticity all showed significant improvement after only 10 minutes of riding!

This treatment can be particularly useful to patients with cerebral palsy and other physical disabilities. Now think about the relation to the development of young people with physical disabilties. Many young people in this situation are most frustrated because of their confinement to a wheelchair. This will provide them a new and exciting opportunity. Horseback riding is also a sport, and students with physical disabilities are often unable to participate in any type of sporting event. They could never trek through the woods in a wheelchair, but on horseback they certainly can. These things all prove to be powerful incentives. In addition it provides them a simple pleasure, and an emotional connection. It is a much needed bridge for some with a physical disability that gives them both pleasure, hope, and yes…real progress.


McGraw, Eliza. "More Than Just Horseplay." The Washington Post. 17 July 2007.