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What Are the Effects of Hippotherapy on Children?

by Thomas Brown(more info)

listed in animals, originally published in issue 293 - March 2024

 

Hippotherapy is a therapeutic technique that involves supervised interactions between children and horses. It has evolved from its historical origins to become a vital component of paediatric therapy. At the core of this approach is the recognition that the bond between humans and animals can be used for healing purposes. By comprehending the physiological and psychological aspects of this connection, therapists have opened up new opportunities for children facing diverse challenges.

This article sets out an exploration of the diverse effects of hippotherapy on children, analyzing its impact on physical development, emotional well-being, communication skills, and specific conditions.

The Basics of Hippotherapy

Hippotherapy is a unique blend of scientific principles and natural elements, where the rhythmic motions of equines serve as a medium for therapists to guide the path toward recovery. Unlike recreational horse riding, hippotherapy sessions are meticulously structured. Trained therapists evaluate the kid’s individual requirements and create exercises that use the horse's movements[1] to target specific muscles. The horse's gait imitates that of a human, delivering gentle yet impactful motions that activate the core muscles of a young patient, enhance their posture, and improve balance.

The presence and warmth of horses have an immediate psychological impact. Children, especially those dealing with trauma or fear, find comfort in the non-judgmental companionship offered by these animals. Engaging in grooming, saddling, and interacting with horses instills a sense of responsibility and achievement. Such activities, integrated into therapy, foster confidence and self-worth in children who may have felt marginalized in traditional therapeutic settings.

 

What Are the Effects of Hippotherapy on Children

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Picture Credit: Image courtesy of prostooleh on Freepik (https://www.freepik.com/free-photo/cute-little-girl-autumn-field-with-horse_6280652.htm

 

Hippotherapy and Physical Development in Children

Hippotherapy has shown remarkable benefits for children facing motor challenges in the case of physical development. For instance, children with cerebral palsy,[2] a condition that often limits movement and muscle control, can greatly benefit from it. The rhythmic motion of the horse provides a dynamic support base, encouraging the child's pelvis to move in a manner similar to walking. As the child adapts to the horse's movements, their core muscles are engaged, resulting in improved stability and balance. The subtle yet consistent muscle contractions during the session help stimulate neurological pathways, promoting muscle memory and control.

The horse therapy acts as a catalyst for enhancing fine motor skills. Engaging in activities like picking up objects or placing them in specific spots on the horse's back requires precise hand-eye coordination and dexterity. These seemingly straightforward tasks, when practised consistently, significantly contribute to a child's overall motor skills.

The natural environment of the riding arena stimulates the senses, with the rustle of leaves, the scent of hay, and the touch of the horse's mane creating a sensory-rich atmosphere. This enhances the kid's sensory processing abilities. Consequently, children not only improve their physical capabilities but also refine their sensory integration skills, enabling them to navigate the world around them more effectively.

Hippotherapy and Emotional and Psychological Well-Being

Hippotherapy extends beyond the physical realm as a sanctuary for emotional and psychological healing. It provides solace to children, particularly those who have encountered trauma or face behavioral obstacles, by offering acceptance in the company of horses.[3] Equines are remarkably perceptive creatures, attuned to emotions and responding with remarkable patience and empathy. This unspoken bond between the child and the horse nurtures a profound sense of trust, an emotion that may have eluded them in their past experiences.

In the therapeutic field, children often reflect their emotions onto the horse. A hesitant child may work with a hesitant horse, mirroring each other's cautious steps. Under the therapist's guidance, this interaction becomes a symbolic journey. As the kid develops trust in the horse, they simultaneously learn to trust themselves and others. This trust becomes a foundation for building self-esteem. The child realizes their ability to guide this massive, powerful creature through gentle commands, empowering them in their daily life. The sense of accomplishment, of being able to direct an animal that surpasses them in size, enhances their self-worth and self-assurance.

Furthermore, the rhythmic motion of horses has a soothing effect on children experiencing stress and anxiety. The repetitive movements trigger the release of endorphins,[4] which are natural stress relievers, promoting a state of relaxation. Syncing their breathing with the horse's rhythm and feeling the gentle sway creates a meditative environment. In this serene area, children find solace from the turmoil of their thoughts. Such sessions not only provide immediate relief from stress but also equip children with effective coping strategies. They learn to associate the therapy arena with safety and tranquility, a mental sanctuary they can turn to during difficult times. This psychological connection becomes a valuable tool, empowering them to manage anxiety even outside of therapy.

Communication and Social Development Through Hippotherapy

Communication, a crucial life skill, can present significant challenges for children with various disorders. Hippotherapy offers a unique combination of physical exercises and emotional connections, making it an ideal platform for honing communication abilities. Consider a child with autism, a condition that often hampers verbal communication. In the presence of a horse, communication goes beyond words. The child learns to interpret the horse's body language, understand its needs, and respond accordingly. These non-verbal interactions[5] are remarkably expressive, providing valuable learning experiences.

The group dynamics present in hippotherapy sessions foster an environment where kids develop the skills of collaboration and cooperation. Engaging in activities that require teamwork, such as guiding the horse through obstacle courses, playing therapeutic games, or riding together, cultivates a sense of camaraderie. These shared experiences help build social bonds and impart valuable lessons in social interactions, including the significance of patience, empathy, and understanding. The following skills are essential for nurturing healthy relationships and cannot be overlooked.

The structured nature of horse therapy creates a secure setting for honing social skills. Therapists frequently integrate social scenarios into sessions, encouraging children to articulate their emotions, make requests, and engage in simple dialogues. These activities, conducted within a supportive environment, enhance their self-assurance. As they grow more comfortable expressing themselves during therapy, this newfound confidence extends to their everyday lives. Children who previously struggled to initiate conversations find the bravery to voice their thoughts, fostering a sense of autonomy and self-assuredness.

Conclusion

Hippotherapy is a unique approach that extends beyond the physical realm. Its holistic nature encompasses not only the symptoms but also the emotional and social challenges faced by children. The impact of hippotherapy is profound and far-reaching, fostering empowerment, nurturing, and transformation. From the tentative steps of a kid with cerebral palsy to the confident strides of a child with autism, hippotherapy paves the way for a future abundant with possibilities.

References

  1. David Garcia. What Is Hippotherapy Used for? The Ultimate Guide. Website https://horsezz.com/blog/what-is-hippotherapy/ 2023.
  2. Sarah Schulze. (2023). Cerebral Palsy and Hippotherapy. Website https://www.cerebralpalsyguidance.com/cerebral-palsy/treatment/hippotherapy/ 2023,
  3. Naomi Sharp.. Healing Effects of Horses. Website https://www.positivehealth.com/article/animals/healing-effects-of-horses. 2012.
  4. Li J, Huang Z, Si W, Shao T. The Effects of Physical Activity on Positive Emotions in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health;19(21):14185. doi: 10.3390/ijerph192114185. PMID: 36361067; PMCID: PMC9657539. Website: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9657539/. Oct 30 2022.
  5. Chelsea Whitaker.. Hippotherapy for Autism Spectrum Disorders. Website https://autism.org/webinars/hippotherapy/. 2021.

Credit Acknowledgement Citation

Image courtesy of prostooleh on Freepik (https://www.freepik.com/free-photo/cute-little-girl-autumn-field-with-horse_6280652.htm)

 

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About Thomas Brown

Thomas Brown is a writer, project manager, and a self-starter with a keen eye for detail and thorough expertise in developing educational content for the equestrian blog Horsezz.com. When Tom is out of the office, he’s likely hitting the trails on his horse Charlie. New adventures inspire Tom to create fresh stories and broaden his horizons.

Thomas is also an experienced expert in the field of mobility solutions. With an unwavering passion for empowering individuals with limited mobility, Thomas has dedicated his life to improving accessibility and independence for those in need. Nowadays, Thomas works closely with Marc's Mobility, helping customers find the perfect mobility solutions tailored to their unique needs. His insightful writings and comprehensive knowledge have helped people broaden their horizons in the industry.

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