The use of horses to treat those with physical and mental disabilities, also known as equine-assisted therapy (EAT), or hippotherapy, is a practice that has been around for centuries.
Dating back to Hippocrates himself, therapists have used horses throughout the ages to help patients with such conditions as gout, polio, scoliosis, autism and post-traumatic stress disorders.
In more recent years, researchers have focused attention on the potential benefits of hippotherapy for those with movement and neurological disorders like cerebral palsy.
How is Horse Therapy Conducted?
In most cases of hippotherapy, one or two specially trained therapists direct the horse’s movements and coordinate the patient’s balance and posture. Meanwhile, the patient interacts with the horse and adjusts to its movements. In more aggressive horse therapies the patient actively directs the horse under the supervision of the therapist.
Aside from the therapeutic benefits of being in the presence of a horse, it has been reported that the shape, warmth and unique rhythmic movement of these animals can have benefits on coordination, strength, balance and posture.
Study Shows Benefits of Horse Therapy for Cerebral Palsy
A 2014 study from Yonsei University College of Medicine in Seoul, Korea found that children with cerebral palsy treated with horse therapy had significant improvements in both gross motor function and functional performance.
Researchers measured 34 children with spastic cerebral palsy between the ages of 3 and 12 years. A portion of these underwent horse therapy for just 45 minutes two times per week for 2 months, while the rest of the group did not.
Compared to those not receiving the therapy, kids who had undergone the hippotherapy had substantial improvement in three different tests: the GMFM-66 and GMFM-88 Gross Motor Function Measure tests and the PEDI-FSS Functional Skills Scale.
Examples of Help for Those with Cerebral Palsy
A recent story detailed the specific benefits that horse therapy may have for those with even the most severe forms of cerebral palsy or movement disorders.
8 year-old Darragh Dooley of Ireland has severe cerebral palsy that confines him to a wheelchair, impairs his vision, prohibits him from talking and requires that he be fed through a feeding tube. However, his parents report dramatic responses every time he interacts with a horse in therapy.
Lately, Darragh has been undergoing weekly therapeutic horse riding treatments in a special saddle designed to support his upper body while allowing him to still feel the movements of the horse.
According to his instructor, Darragh can move about better on a horse than he can with his wheelchair, which instills confidence. And, with horses delivering 110 swinging motions from all directions each minute due to the natural rhythm of their walk, it has been a great help with his muscle strength.
His therapists have reported better core strength, neck strength and his ability to stretch.
Also, Darragh’s parents report the riding therapy has helped with his digestion, constipation and burping, which can be a problem in children who rely on feeding tubes.
Most importantly, Darragh’s father describes how he goes into a happy state of mind every time he is on his horse, a benefit that can’t be measured.
Finding a Cerebral Palsy Horse Therapy Program Near You
Equine-assisted therapy programs are typically organized locally, but are popping up all around the country as more people become aware of their benefits.
Generally, your child’s physical or occupational therapist can recommend a horse therapy program in your area or a quick Google search for “horse therapy” will return local results.
Although the costs to keep horses specially trained for adaptive therapy can be high, these programs are often very inexpensive for participants or can even be free if covered by insurance.
Some EAT programs charge a small amount for a package of therapy sessions. Others are operated as non-profit organizations by dedicated volunteers or therapists and rely solely on donations to continue.
However, insurance plans are increasingly covering the costs for equine-assisted therapy due to the low-cost health benefits that have been demonstrated.
For more on the treatment options available to those with cerebral palsy, contact DrugNews today.
Park, E., et al. Effects of Hippotherapy on Gross Motor Function and Functional Performance of Children with Cerebral Palsy. Yonsei Medical Journal. (October 8, 2014). Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
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