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Hippotherapy: a unique treatment in occupational therapy

Hippotherapy, from the Greek ‘hippos' meaning horse, literally means treatment with the horse and is a physical, occupational and speech therapy that uses the horse's natural gait to provide motor or sensory input.

This type of therapy is an adjunct treatment that can be helpful in allied health and is particularly useful in occupational therapy to treat a variety neurological or other disabilities.

The rhythmic, three-dimensional movement of a walking horse can help a client to develop postural control, muscle strength, equilibrium reactions, coordination, balance and spatial awareness.

Hippotherapy also has psychological, speech, language and cognitive benefits.

Who benefits from hippotherapy?

Hippotherapy is a beneficial treatment for clients with the following conditions:
•    Cerebral Palsy
•    Cerebral vascular accident
•    Multiple Sclerosis
•    Traumatic brain injury
•    Functional spinal curvature (scoliosis, kyphosis, lordosis)
•    Autism
•    Arthritis
•    Stroke
•    Behavioural disorders
•    Psychiatric disorders

Occupational Therapist Cassandra Allison of Two Hearts Therapy at Barneveld Equestrian, said while typical occupational therapy treats people with challenges to find solutions to best achieve their goals, hippotherapy incorporates horses to assist with the motivation to reach goals that are difficult in a clinical setting.

“We also use the setting of the outdoors to reduce stress and increase motivation, as some people just don’t work well at a desk.

“It's a nice change for people who have been in therapy their whole life, and still require this as an ongoing treatment, to have a change in not only the scenery but types of exercises.”

The combination of the outdoors and horses makes hippotherapy unique in its ability to shift client attitudes and behaviours.

“The most important thing for us as therapists is the attitude change in the clients.

“It also increases their engagement levels.

“I have seen changes that are difficult to produce through a typical clinical setting.”

Hippotherapy is particularly important for clients that require therapy in relation to spatial awareness, posture and fine motor skills, explained Ms Allison.

“This is because the horses increase not only the fun factor but help support the client’s movement.”

Occupation therapists who are interested in adding hippotherapy to their treatment service should first have a passion for horses, said Ms Allison.

“The horses are just as important members of the team as we are.

“Practical learning is best, and I highly recommend doing some volunteer time with your nearby providers or volunteer services.

“Luckily the Barneveld Equestrian facilities are all above board and ready to go, so we were able to make a smooth transition and get the ball rolling very quickly.”

The ability to work with horses to achieve goals for clients is personally rewarding, said Ms Allison.

“Every success big or small is a great success to me, as it can make such an impact on lives and families. 

“What one person measures as a great success can be the tiniest of tasks to another.

“A great one for me is when a parent was told their child would never speak or be able to feed himself. Then, partway through a family dinner, calls out ‘walk-on' just as we do to the horses.”

Bethany Van Barneveld, Owner and Head Instructor at Barneveld Equestrian, said Two Hearts Therapy was always on the agenda when she started the equestrian centre. 

“This was always an end goal for Barneveld Equestrian, and now that we have rebranded the therapy facility as Two Hearts Therapy, we can marry the two together as a partnership.

“I have always been interested in helping others, and many of the students we already have as just riding members have managed to overcome issues such as anxiety and shyness by having a positive experience with the horses.

“It just made sense. As we are quiet during the school and work hours, we grabbed the opportunity to expand and take it further.”

Sam, * a client at Two Hearts Therapy, takes her daughter to hippotherapy to help with movement and developmental issues, from muscle stiffness to apraxia, and believes horses make therapy easier. 

“Being around horses makes therapies like stretching and responding so much easier for her because she's having fun, and spending time with the horses without even realising it is therapy.”

Sam said she has also noticed that her daughter is happier and more relaxed when horses are involved in the therapy.

“She’s more willing to perform the exercises and to listen to the instructors than when we take her to ordinary therapy rooms.

“Hippotherapy is a wonderful, positive environment for someone who generally finds therapy stressful.

“The staff at Two Hearts Therapy are wonderfully welcoming and friendly, and always tailor the sessions to meet our daughter’s needs.

“It’s not a one size fits all, but is much more personalised, which we love.

“The facility itself is unique, and easy to a get to, which is great for us.”


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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.