Equine therapy/hippotherapy is a therapy that can be implemented for children with autism, that claims to have many benefits. Hippotherapy is a therapy in which certified individuals pair children with autism with a horse to try to foster communication skills, especially with children that present with nonverbal autism. Proponents of hippotherapy claim that benefits for the autism population can include relaxation of tight muscles, increased muscle strength, improved fine motor coordination, sharpened hand/eye coordination, improved posture/flexibility, improved communication, better self-control, improvements in self-confidence, enhanced concentration, and improved socialization (Aspen, 2011). In terms of improved socialization, hippotherapy impacts social connections through allowing the child with autism to foster a personal relationship with a horse (Ultimate Autism Guide). In a study conducted by Kem et al, 20 individuals with autism underwent hippotherapy for a 6 month time-span. Improvements in communication were measured via baseline and post-treatment performance on the CARS. Similarly, parent report via the Timberlawn Parent-Child Interaction Scale showed drastic improvement after only 3 months of exposure to the treatment, and improved again at the end of the 6 month time-span. However, there is limited information about the age of participants, the “severity” of the autism diagnosis, and how the selected individuals qualified to participate in the study (eligibility requirements). In another study conducted by Gabriels et. al, 42 participants with autism were prescribed a 10-week dosage of “therapeutic horseback riding”, participants were found to have better self-regulation skills than at the pre-trial period. On top of benefits within speech-language therapy, occupational therapists and physical therapists also report benefits within motor skills and balance gained via hippotherapy (Johnston).
Unfortunately, many insurance companies have a different opinion about hippotherapy and refuse to cover the cost. Similar to insurance companies, some are confused about the purpose of hippotherapy and feel that “learning to ride a horse” is not synonymous with therapy (Johnston). However, proponents of hippotherapy, as previously mentioned, maintain that hippotherapy does more than just teach an individual how to ride a horse.
While research on hippotherapy is limited, there are certainly a number of organizations and associations that support hippotherapy. In addition, there are countless personal testimonies that report positive experiences and breakthroughs through implementation of hippotherapy (NC Therapeutic Riding Center), and may therefore be a reason why so many organizations support this type of therapy. Just a quick google search of “hippotherapy autism” will result in a list of the following organizations demonstrating positive associations with hippotherapy: American Hippotherapy Association, Children’s TherAplay Foundation, Autism Speaks, Aspen Education, Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation, etc.
Written by: Taylor Viggers, MS, CF-SLP
Aspen. (2011). Aspen education group. Retrieved from http://aspeneducation.crchealth.com /articles/article-equine-aspergers-autism/
Gabriels, Robin L., Agnew, John A., Holt, Katherine D., Shoffner, Amy. (August, 2011). Pilot study measuring the effects of therapeutic horseback riding on school-age children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Elsevier. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 578-588. Retrieved September 17, 2015, from http://www.researchgate.net/profile/John_Agnew/publication/ 235420679_pilot_study_measuring_the_effects_of_therapeutic_horseback_riding_on_school- age_children_and_adolescents_with_autism_spectrum_disorder/links/ 546f67f80cf2d67fc0311247.pdf
Johnston, L. (March 20, 2013). Some health insurance companies hesitate to cover treatment using horses. Retrieved September 18, 2015, from http://www.insweb.com/news-features/horse- therapy.html
Kem, J., Fletcher, C., Garver, C., Mehta, J., & Grannemann, B. (2011). Prospective trial of equine-assisted activities in autism spectrum disorder. Health Med, 17(3). Retrieved September 17, 2015, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22164808
The Benefits of Hippotherapy for the Autistic Population – Special. (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2015, from http://www.special-learning.com/article/benefits_hippotherapy
Ultimate Autism Guide. Autism Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. Research: Prospective Trial of Equine-Assisted Activities in Autism Spectrum Disorder. (2012, January 10). Retrieved September 18, 2015, from http://ultimateautismguide.com/2012/01/autism-research-prospective- trial-of-equine-assisted-activities-in-autism-spectrum-disorder/