What is Hippotherapy?

What is hippotherapy? It has nothing to do with a hippopotamus. Think Greece. “Hippos” is the Greek word for “horse”.

A clear description of hippotherapy is one provided in an abstract by Brandon Rhett Rigby, M.S.B.M.S. (2009) who states:

Hippotherapy is a treatment strategy that uses horse movement as a physical therapy tool for clients with a broad range of diagnoses, including cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. Studies show that the gait motion of the horse provides sensory stimulus and movement patterns to the rider that mimic natural movements of healthy humans…[1]

Providing the horse is relaxed under the rider, the movement of the horse can relax the entire body of the rider, freeing up tight and underused areas, which are commonplace for those confined to wheelchairs or for those who have difficulty walking.

At Valley Therapeutic, where I have been studying the impact I have on clients when playing the violin, part of the session is spent out in the woods on their private trail, weather permitting. Objects are strategically placed in the woods to assist with stretching, touching and vocalization, and all the while, passively interacting with and reacting to the horse’s movements. Balance and core strength is also improved as hands reach up for objects rather than hanging on. I follow or lead them out, like a Pied Piper, creating musical stories around the found objects.

All aspects of the session improve neurological function and sensory processing. Inside the arena, games are played, songs are sung or conducted with cues from the violin, all the while working on breathing, vocal projection, strengthening and stretching.

All lesson plans have intention and outcome. For instance, if a client is collapsed on one side due to cerebral palsy or scoliosis, the direction traveled in the arena will be in the direction that challenges the muscles on the weaker side. Another example: changing positions on the horse can also influence speech production, particularly a sitting backwards position. Sitting backwards encourages the tongue to recess, decreasing spit production and the likelihood of tongue engagement, and therefore a greater likelihood of speech/language initiation. The addition of the violin expands and extends the actions arising from these treatment methods.

The over-arching goal is to reach as independent a state as possible. Speech is the ultimate desirable. The sound and frequencies of the violin triggers speech and lights up the language areas of the brain. When speech or vocalization are triggered, the client is a step closer to independence. 

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