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How Hippotherapy and Therapeutic Riding Can Help Children with Special Needs

Hippotherapy aids with therapy goals

Literally meaning “treatment with the help of the horse” from the Greek word “hippos,” hippotherapy is how physical, occupational and speech therapists use the movement of the horse as part of their intervention to help achieve their objectives.

“The horse’s movement has a therapeutic effect on the child because it imparts a precise repetitive pattern of movement that’s very similar to a person’s pelvis during normal walking,” says Lisa Newcomb, executive director of Quest Therapeutic Services in West Chester, PA. “It helps with balance, strengthening the core, and sensory input.”

The goal is not to learn to ride a horse, but to use the horse’s movement as a tool. Children sit or kneel on the horse in any direction as three adults guide the horse, provide the therapy and make sure the child is safe. While on horseback, children can also participate in other activities like basketball, putting rings on poles, and working puzzles.

“We’re using the horse’s movement as that tool to facilitate the physical, speech and occupational therapy,” says Newcomb.

Therapeutic riding provides a recreational outlet

Unlike hippotherapy, therapeutic riding focuses on using the movement of the horse to give a recreational experience or to teach riding skills to people with disabilities, says Barbara Wertheimer, executive director of Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Academy in Northeast Philadelphia. Through that process the rider derives physical, psychological, mental and emotional therapeutic benefits.

“Being on the horse gives the rider the feeling of self confidence, independence, and enjoying an activity that they can call their own,” says Wertheimer.


Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.


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