Horsing Around in Therapy – What is Hippotherapy?

Horsing Around in Therapy – What is Hippotherapy?

When you are the parent of a disabled child, one of the first things you learn is there are more choices of therapy than you have the time or money to invest in. Your best bet is gain advice from others with children in similar situations as your child’s and ask about the positive and negative sides of the programs they have used. I was introduced to Equine Facilitated Learning by another Mom who used the program with her son and found it most helpful. Therapy using a horse may also be called hippotherapy or equine therapy. Maybe this is a therapy that you too would like more information about, especially if have a child that loves animals.

Jackson's Journey at HippotherapyWhat is hippotherapy? A specialized therapy where children learn about themselves and other people in the world by riding a horse trained to work with disabled children. This is not teaching riding skills or horse grooming, but rather a form of therapy proven to change brainwave patterns. Horses are well known for having a calming effect, allowing a child to stop focusing or fixating on negative events or negative feeling. There is a connection that has been well documented in children with autism, attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder and other communication impairing disorders. Any child who has difficult relating to people, difficulty carrying out instructions or speaking will find just being in the presence of a horse pleasant and comforting. A marked change in anti-social and aggressive behavior has been noted a well as cases where children make strides in communication.

How does this work? A horse is a great mirror to the person he is with. Children also pick up on the horses’ calm trusting nature and will mirror that back. With the assistance of a trained therapist, the child can give a simple command to the horse and the horse will look to them for leadership. A trust is build between horse and child. Small steps can be built with a non-verbal child who reacts to the horse with just a touch; soon the horse will be following the child’s non-verbal lead.

Children, even special need children, can often manage a horse quicker and easier than adults. This is because children accept things at face value and are more willing to developing an equal relationship than trying to assert control. Children speak in simple easy commands, stop, and go, turn, which is all the horse needs or wants.

Studies have proven that children with ADD or ADHD will focus on a horse for long periods of time while grooming or leading the horse. These are children who usually cannot concentrate and stay on task well. Autistic children who are withdrawn and seem to be living in their own world may begin to express themselves sometimes using new words or gestures they’ve never expressed before.

Self-esteem grown by leaps and bounds as the child realizes they have the ability to lead this large gentle giant and take control of a situation, perhaps the first time they have ever felt such control. Children with balance or other walking issues feel accomplishment sitting high on top of these beautiful beast walking with grace and confidence. There have been documented reports that riding helps develop balance and perceptual understanding.


Jackson's Journey at HippotherapyWhat kind of horse works best? There is no set breed or type of horse that works best. Like people, this is an individual personality issue. Horses chosen for therapy programs are calm in nature, patient and have a trainable temperament. All horses go through a vigorous assessment and must not kick, bite, rear, or buck, or show signs of stress during long work out sessions. Any horse showing any signs of temper or aggression will not be allowed in any therapy programs.

Therapy horses are very adaptable, can follow commands without being touched and are not fazed or confused in working with children who use different forms of communication. Horse are often older rescued or animals who are retired from a former working life and now enjoy their days working with children.

To find a hippotherapy center in your area ask therapist working with your child. Depending on your area, a local college may offer this service or ask at a children’s hospital for more information.


By | 2012-11-15T08:13:05+00:00 November 15th, 2012|Categories: Diagnosis Defined, Medical / Therapies, OT / PT, Therapies|Tags: , |4 Comments

About the Author:

Cheryl Bailey
Cheryl Bailey is a freelance/ghost writer who lives North Mississippi. She is the mom of two grown sons the youngest was disabled after a vaccine injury left him without any physical skills or speech. Cheryl now works to advocate for all persons of disability, and frequently writes about life with John, subject of A View in the Mirror. Her other passions include sewing, gardening, and spending time her dog Cindy and any stray cats that choose to call her back porch home. When not working as an advocate for persons with disabilities, she can be found working for Soldiers Angels in support of our troops.


  1. Julie November 19, 2012 at 7:19 am - Reply

    My son does therapeutic riding and it has been amazing. We’ve seen an improvement in his core strength, his self control and his attention. There is just something special that happens when a child is on a horse.

  2. Cheryl
    Cheryl November 23, 2012 at 11:19 am - Reply

    That’s wonderful!! I tried it with my son years ago..but he had such sensory issues with the helmet that we had to stop. Honesty, if the helmet had not been required, he would have loved it.

  3. Barb January 9, 2013 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    I have been wanting to get my kiddo into hippotherapy for years now. About a year ago we went on a waitlist! I call every few months to remind them we homeschool so we have a super flexible schedule. No luck yet…

    • Editor
      Editor January 16, 2013 at 5:55 pm - Reply

      Barb! You should totally contact me about which places you’re going through. There’s a number of places that are actually really good and don’t have waitlists around us.

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