Hippotherapy: When horses perform miracles

Disabled humans find in horses kindred spirits and healing.


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., May 30, 2016 – Six children from the Portland, Oregon, Shriner’s Hospital arrived at Forward Stride, a Portland riding stable, one Saturday morning. The children, whose disabilities ranged from autism to missing limbs and every malady in between, were at the stables for three horse-riding sessions.

They were there to take part in hippotherapy, a form of occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech language pathology on the backs of horses. Through the concentration that is required to handle a horse, riders subconsciously develop motor skills, core strength, balance and mental stimulation.

During a typical hippotherapy session, each child’s horse is led by an experienced horse person. Two trained hippo therapy “side walkers” walk alongside the horse, gently holding onto the child’s legs. Side walkers are trained in the ways of horse moods, off-loading techniques and interaction with people with disabilities.

Directing the horse’s movement is a physical therapist who is watching the child’s spinal alignment, balance and other physical indicators. For instance, if a child’s left side is weaker than his right side, the therapist might direct the horse to move in a direction and at a pace that gently forces the rider to use his weak side more.

This particular Saturday morning, the last of the six children to board his horse was a small 5-year-old. His father was standing ready at the gate, holding his son. Like many first-time riders, the child was terrified at the sight of these large animals. His crying was so shrill and piercing that, were he on a plane, the other passengers might wish for a crash. Tears and mucus ran down the youngster’s distorted face. Each time a horse was brought anywhere near the child, matters worsened. He was having none of it.

Before giving up altogether, the instructor asked that Pippin, a small black pony, be brought in from the field for the child. When the pony arrived, she and her leader stood calmly in the center of the arena, awaiting further direction.

Suddenly and completely on her own, Pippin broke from her handler and walked purposefully over to the screaming child. The pony thrust her head over the gate to the father’s shoulder until she was eyeball to eyeball with the child. Then she tipped her head back and forth as if to say, “Are you all right? I’m sorry you’re feeling bad.”

Pippin, in that magical moment, demonstrated the miracle that happens when you place a horse beside a vulnerable person, child or adult. Horses are fearful by nature; they are flight animals. At some level, horses sense the vulnerability a disabled person – man or child – feels and immediately recognize in that person a kindred spirit.

(Images are courtesy of PATH, Intl. – Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International)

Anyone who has had the privilege of working in hippotherapy can recount stories of his own that are similar. In this writer’s experience,

  • There was Max, the autistic Russian boy, who would not speak. After about three weeks of sessions, he wouldn’t stop talking. His pony, Thistle, had done what no human had been able to do in years of therapy.
  • There was Abba, short for Abigail. Tiny, with curls framing her elfin face, Abba wore heavy leather braces on her legs. Three years later, one day she was seen racing at full tilt through the stable hall, sans braces!
  • Most recently, at the Colorado Springs Therapeutic Riding Center, a severely disabled child is held by an adult therapist who rides behind her. During early sessions, the child’s head hung down, and saliva emanated from her mouth. Just last week, she suddenly was holding her head erect, the better to see and enjoy the experience. And she was giggling throughout the ride!

Which brings us to the final observation about the magic of hippotherapy. People with disabilities, whether small children or adults, typically live lives of quiet isolation. They are living in a world of soccer games, running and energy. They have severe limitations in that regard. And their knowledge of their own limitations can be enervating.

Suddenly, these formerly powerless individuals are sitting atop an 840-2,200 pound horse, guiding the horse’s actions, controlling where they go and how quickly or slowly. Besides observing the miraculous transformation in these riders, occasionally it is worthwhile to glance over to the side of the arena to witness parents who are seeing their child in the throes of complete happiness and control for the first time.

Or, watch as parents collect their child after class, as he actively responds to them with grins and happy talk. The same child who entered the stable quiet, taciturn, often troubled, often leaves with head held high, knowing he or she has a new happy place to go. Just seeing the parents’ relief and happiness at their children’s changed world and newfound happiness is worth, as they say, “all the tea in China”!

What is hippotherapy?

Hippotherapy is sometimes referred to as equine-assisted activity, equine-assisted therapy or therapeutic horseback riding. It is an effective form of therapy for all ranges of physical, emotional and cognitive special needs. Today, hippotherapy is recognized as one of the most progressive forms of therapy.

In hippotherapy, the horse influences the rider rather than the rider’s controlling the horse. The rider actively responds to the horse’s movement, which the therapist directs. That movement addresses emotional (including veterans with PTSD), psychological (including anorexic teens,) and physical impairments, functional limitations and disabilities in patients.

Therapeutic riding was first introduced in 1946 by Liz Hartel, an Olympic equestrian, and Ulla Harporth, a physical therapist. Hartel rode and medaled in both the 1952 and 1956 Olympics in spite of the fact that she was severely paralyzed from polio.

How to volunteer

Volunteers are always needed at hippotherapy facilities. Seek a PATH* associated facility. You will receive detailed training and will be allowed to work into your role gradually and safely. There is no additional charge for observing the miracles first hand. There is no charge for the peace of mind and happiness deep in your soul that you feel as you drive away from the stable after a session.


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