Hippotherapy and Cerebral Palsy

Alternative, Cerebral Palsy Therapies

A wide range of therapy options are designed to improve abilities and motor function in children with cerebral palsy. Some alternative therapies, like hippotherapy, may offer unique outcomes to certain patients. Discover the potential benefits of hippotherapy for cerebral palsy and determine whether horseback riding therapy could be a helpful approach for your child.

What Is Hippotherapy?

Hippotherapy is a type of therapy that relies on equine or horse movement to improve physical and neurological function in patients. This form of physical, occupational, and speech therapy may treat patients with a variety of conditions, including cerebral palsy.

Hippotherapy first emerged in Europe in the 1960s. About 20 years later, select therapists in the United States began to adopt hippotherapy to help patients increase strength and improve motor skills. Today, therapists use this type of equine-assisted therapy for patients with a variety of physical and cognitive issues.

How Hippotherapy Works

Although many different types of therapy involve animals, equine-assisted therapy is unique because horses and people have similar cadences. This type of therapy uses the horse’s natural movements to enhance patients’ neuromuscular development. As horses trot and gallop, their gaits and rhythms affect riders’ movements and thought patterns. As patients ride horses, they must consider and carry out a variety of movements to stay balanced and communicate with the horse.

Hippotherapy sessions often begin with simple activities like petting and getting to know the animal. After greeting the animal, patients ride horseback, typically with a saddle designed with additional safety precautions. During the therapy session, patients can feel the horse’s natural tempo, which may help them develop an improved sense of rhythm. The horse’s movement also provides a physical guide for patients on horseback, as it urges their torso and hips into correct movement and alignment.

Therapy horses are carefully selected and trained to ensure the riders’ safety. Horses are chosen for their temperament and typically undergo specialized training before being used in hippotherapy sessions.

In addition, therapists must have specialized training before offering this treatment. The American Hippotherapy Association (AHA) approves sites and issues guidelines for safety and education best practices.

Potential Outcomes of Hippotherapy

With regular hippotherapy, cerebral palsy patients may experience a wide range of outcomes. This type of therapy has the potential to offer physical, psychological, cognitive, and emotional effects. Many cerebral palsy patients improve common physical issues like:

  • Reduced mobility
  • Limited coordination
  • Imperfect balance
  • Communication problems
  • Atypical muscle tone
  • Poor posture
  • Limited limbic system capabilities

As patients make improvements in these areas, they have the potential to develop their motor skills. Over time, hippotherapy may lead to improved walking and standing skills. Eventually, children with cerebral palsy may also be able to direct the horse by squeezing their limbs or moving the reins.

With consistent horseback riding therapy, cerebral palsy patients may also enhance their speaking skills and comprehension capabilities. They may also become more alert and aware of their bodies, and they may improve their social skills and confidence.

Hippotherapy patients may also feel more motivated to pursue treatment due to the enjoyable nature of the sessions and the bond that they develop with the horses. Additionally, the environment could provide new visual stimuli that further engage patients.

How Effective Is Hippotherapy?

Because hippotherapy is an alternative to traditional treatments, it isn’t considered a substitute for modern medicine. Hippotherapy devices aren’t FDA-approved, and there aren’t extensive studies exploring the efficacy of equine-assisted therapy for cerebral palsy patients. However, some smaller case studies have indicated that hippotherapy could have positive outcomes.

In 2014, a study investigated the impact of hippotherapy on gross motor function and performance in patients with spastic cerebral palsy. Altogether, 34 children formed the intervention group, and 21 children were included in the control group. Researchers concluded that although both groups showed improvements, there wasn’t a significant difference between the two groups. However, children in the hippotherapy group experienced much higher Gross Motor Function Measure and Pediatric Evaluation of Disability Inventory scores.

A 2016 hippotherapy study explored changes in postural balance and functional ability in children with cerebral palsy. This study compared the differences between 12 and 24 therapy sessions. Researchers noted improvements in seated posture and dynamic balance, with significant differences after 24 sessions. At the end of the study, many patients had also improved daily skills, including social functions and self-care capabilities.

If you’re interested in learning more about hippotherapy and how it could enhance your child’s therapy plan, your child’s healthcare team can provide reliable advice.

Cerebral palsy can be the result of many different factors, one of which may be a birth injury caused by medical error. If you suspect that medical negligence may have contributed to your child’s cerebral palsy, you may have the option to pursue compensation for their medical expenses and treatments. Contact the Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers at Janet, Janet & Suggs today to learn more.



Claire Surles, RN
Reviewed by:
Claire Surles, RN
Registered Nurse

Claire comes to JJS after a 10-year career as a labor and delivery nurse. She dedicated her hospital efforts to advocating for families, providing the safest birthing environment possible as Newborn Admission Nurse at UMMC St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Maryland. Her passion for helping those who experienced losses at any stage of gestation led to her appointment as Coordinator of the hospital’s ROOTS perinatal loss program. READ FULL BIO

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