Some parents and professionals involved in pervasive developmental disorders may ask What is hippotherapy and how does it apply to autism? Hippotherapy refers to therapeutic interventions that use horses. The approach is ideal for many autistic individuals.
What Is Hippotherapy
Using horses in therapy for individuals with movement problems dates back thousands of years. The approach has evolved to embrace physical, speech and occupational therapy for autism. Hippotherapists do not exist; professional speech, OT and physical therapists conduct the guided therapy sessions in a controlled setting.
Physical Therapy and OT
Many individuals diagnosed in the autism spectrum of disorders have serious sensory processing problems. Horse therapies for autistic people help improve the neurological functioning necessary to process sensations appropriately. The sensory input provided by the experience is beneficial for a number of reasons:
- Rhythmic movements that are similar to the natural walking motions of humans help the individual orientate himself while in motion.
- Repetition is calming, offering a way to develop expectations and appropriate behavioral responses.
- Varying the horse's gait is a wonderful tool for therapists who want to control the amount and intensity of sensory input.
- Motivating experiences are ideal for learning and for generalization into everyday settings.
The motivating activities lead to excellent physical results in many cases:
- Improved mobility
- Better balance
- Increased mobility
- Improved sensory processing
- Better coordination
- Improved muscle tone
Therapy that uses horses is a very effective sensory integration therapy for autism and like other sensory approaches, hippotherapy can help improve communication, making it ideal for speech therapists to use as well.
When addressing what is hippotherapy, some may be surprised to discover that speech therapists are involved in the process. Horse riding therapies can help encourage language in a number of ways.
- The experience can improve cognitive functioning by providing relief from sensory distractions and by improving the physical systems involved in articulation and speech.
- Since the activity is so motivating to many clients, the speech pathologist is able to encourage functional communication.
The American Hippotherapy Association has been in operation since 1993. The organization is dedicated to promoting education and research about the intervention while encouraging communication among professionals involved in the process. AHA, Inc. uses the fundamentals of classic hippotherapy.
When answering the question what is hippotherapy, it is necessary to consider classic hippotherapy. Since the equestrian therapies have evolved over thousands of years, different facets of the approach have emerged. Each of the facets has variations that do not necessarily adhere to the classic approach.
Fundamentally, the classic form of the therapy is horse-centered. The subject is passive, responding to the natural movements that the horse makes. The goal is to improve the individual's physical responses to the horse, rather than to teach the client how to control the animal. The therapist serves as a guide.
Hippotherapy is inspired by this classic approach but it adds interventions that serve to help the client meet specific goals in the realm of physical, behavioral, communicative and social development as well. The brilliant merging of therapeutic interventions with a system that involves the entire body offers a unique opportunity to help the autistic individual thrive in a natural setting.
Autism and Therapeutic Horses
Individuals diagnosed with autistic disorders are each unique. Some may embrace the therapeutic intervention while others will have negative responses to the approach. It is very important to have a professional assessment to ensure that this autism multisensory approach is right for each individual.