Hippotherapy, or horse therapy, is the therapeutic use of horseback riding to encourage social, physical, and emotional development in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
In some states, health insurance may pay for hippotherapy sessions. Parents and caregivers can choose to pay for additional hippotherapy on a private basis.
What does it involve?
Hippotherapy is not appropriate for children under the age of two.
When choosing a hippotherapy provider, make sure to find one who has experience working with children with autism spectrum disorders.
Hippotherapy involves riding and caring for horses. Horseback riding provides multisensory stimulation and increases balance and awareness of the body as it moves with the horse. Saddling, bridling and handling the reins can improve coordination and fine motor skills. Even children who have difficult with attention and following directions are motivated to focus by the enjoyable nature of horseback riding. Learning to care for the horse encourages empathy and emotional and social growth. Hippotherapy can even improve a child’s communication skills, since they must communicate with both the horse and the therapist in order to ride. Children who are usually reluctant to talk may be eager to use the horse’s name and give it verbal commands.
Hippotherapy is most effective as part of a multifaceted early intervention program.
The goal of hippotherapy in autism is to help children improve their physical, emotional and social abilities and function more effectively in daily life.
In a 2009 study, a group of 19 children with ASD engaged in weekly hippotherapy sessions for 12 weeks, while 15 children remained on the waiting list for therapy. At the end of the study, the children who had ridden horses for 12 weeks showed improvements in social behavior, sensory processing, attention, and distractibility than the children who had not ridden.
A 2012 study examined the relationship between improvements in social behavior in autistic children engaging in hippotherapy and the hormones in their saliva. Researchers tested the levels of hormones including cortisol, which is produced when a person is under stress, and oxytocin, which is involved in emotional bonding, before and after the children rode horses. The researchers concluded that hippotherapy was effective in improving social attitudes in children with ASD, and that these improvements corresponded with changes in their hormone levels.
If you pay privately for hippotherapy, it can become expensive.
Depending on where you live, it may be difficult to travel to hippotherapy sessions.