When you wake up in the morning you take it for granted that you will be able to get out of bed on your own. But for someone who suffers from a physical disability, even the act of getting out of bed is a team effort.  Now, research released in July 2009 from Washington University School of Medicine Program in Occupational Therapy shows that a revolutionary new therapy technique with horses could help people with certain disabilities lead a more fulfilling and active life.

This new therapy technique is hippotherapy, also known as therapeutic horsemanship. What makes hippotherapy so different from other therapy techniques is the use of the horse as a therapeutic tool. Hippotherapy uses the natural movement of a horse to help patients with disabilities.

According to the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy, patients from as young as two years old to adults can benefit from hippotherapy. What makes hippotherapy so successful is that the gait of the horse is very similar to the gait of a human, which means that patients can help build the muscles that are key to walking on their own.

According to Barbara Smith, a registered occupational therapist in Massachusetts who employs horse therapy in her work, by sitting in different positions on the horse, a hippotherapy patient can strengthen individual muscles that are important in day-to-day activities. When a patient sits sideways they must adjust their weight which helps increase balance. Lying on their stomach allows joint stimulation and strengthens neck muscles. Hippotherapy has been shown to help patients improve their balance, posture and coordination according to the American Hippotherapy Association (AHA).

Hippotherapy has also been shown to help with patient’s overall mental health. According to the AHA, hippotherapy can help patients with a wide variety of illnesses including autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, and traumatic brain injury or stroke.

If hippotherapy is so successful then why is it not more commonly used? According to Aetna Insurance Company, hippotherapy is still in the investigational phase. They say there is not enough valid scientific data to support hippotherapy as a treatment strategy.

However, the research from Washington University School of Medicine has substantiated the benefits of hippotherapy. According to Tim Shurtleff, the lead researcher for the Washington University study and an occupational therapist, “Beliefs about the positive effects of hippotherapy are strongly held, but not yet fully supported by objective evidence.” 

Shurtleff and the rest of the team from Washington University used a video motion capture technique, which involved placing surface markers on the patients. They then recorded the results as the patients sat on a mechanical barrel that simulated a horse’s movement. The team recorded the results over a 12-week period.

The results indicated substantial benefits in head stability and trunk support, and the ability of children with spastic diplegia cerebral palsy to reach their arms. Spastic diplegia is a form of cerebral palsy that delays muscle growth in the legs; this leads to a tightness in the joints that decreases mobility. Even more surprising, the patients showed sustained progress made during their 12-week hippotherapy session.


  1. This is so interesting! I personally know someone who is involved with horse therapy, and I never knew how it worked. I didn’t realize how many different areas horse therapy could improve. I cannot wait until hippotherapy becomes more widely accepted!

  2. That was really interesting, I never heard about hippotherapy, but i really hope that, it will be more widley spread, same as the last comment :-).