By Susan R. Vergilio, OTR

It has been said that the "horse symbolizes the drive for freedom shared by people of all nations" (author unknown) and that "in riding a horse, we borrow freedom" (Pam Brown). All who come in contact with these beautiful animals, especially those patients receiving hippotherapy, can confirm these quotes. Hippotherapy is a treatment tool used by a specially trained occupational, physical, or speech therapist to treat patients with neurological problems. By using the specific movement of the horse, the therapist can influence the patient's nervous system and ability to plan their movement. Why the horse? The horse's movement is rhythmic and repetitive, and with the right horse, it is symmetrical. The horse's stride also simulates human walking in terms of the influence of movement on the hips of its rider. It also encourages motor learning, a treatment principle that therapists use in treatment, so the movement of the horse creates responses that are essential for walking and other activities, which can be carried over off of the horse. The horse acts as a three-dimensional mobile mat from which therapy can occur. As therapists, we are continuously trying to teach "normal" movement to our clients with neurological problems, and the horse can naturally assist us with this. The movement of the horse can improve balance, strength, tone, timing, coordination, and postural control, which can all lead to improved functional ability of the person with Parkinson's disease. In addition to the natural influence of the horse's movement, there is added benefit from the natural animal-human bond that occurs throughout the sessions. Animals are extremely motivating and can inspire us and touch us in ways that the traditional setting for therapy cannot. This is especially important because therapy is a participatory program. Your therapist can't just do therapy to you; you have to participate and be engaged in the activities in order for them to be effective. Let's face it, when you have been involved in the same traditional treatment activities for a long time, they become a bit repetitious. This leads to decreased patient motivation and participation and therefore decreased improvements in treatment. This is why hippotherapy opens up a whole new opportunity for patients.

Tim is a 47 year old man with Parkinson's. He receives hippotherapy treatments once a week. Tim was in his 30's when diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In the past, he has been involved in traditional therapy and recently started hippotherapy. He, as well as his family, feel that the hippotherapy has improved his function at home as well as improved his mobility overall. He had developed the very classic signs associated with Parkinson's disease, including a flexed posture, decreased coordination, increased rigidity, as well as "scissoring" in both of his legs. He was wheelchair-dependent prior to starting his hippotherapy sessions. He is now able to walk short distances, with improved control and coordination. He is noted to have a visible change in control over his legs, with less "scissoring" immediately following his session. Tim says he feels he hasgreater self- esteem, and feels the sessions are "good for the soul," not to mention feeling less rigidity through out his body following his hippotherapy sessions.

Hippotherapy is not for everyone. All patients must be carefully screened. Typical hippotherapy sessions are 1-2x/week, 30-60 minutes in duration, and are used in addition to traditional therapy techniques. Treatment can only be effective if the therapist has been specially trained to utilize the proper movements of the horse from an accredited program. For more information regarding hippotherapy or if you interested in receiving hippotherapy services please contact Sue Vergilio, OTR at Stable Possibilities LLC, at 586-292-8472.

 

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