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Student sitting backwards on horse with arms over his headWhat is hippotherapy

Hippotherapy is a physical, occupational, and speech-language therapy treatment strategy that utilizes the movement of the horse as part of an integrated intervention program. In each therapy session a specially trained occupational, physical or speech therapist properly positions the client on the horse, analyzes the client's response and directs the horse's movement. In our OT or PT program each client is working towards specific goals developed with input from both the client/parent and therapist. Enjoyable and challenging therapy activities are selected to help established a foundation to improve neurological function and sensory processing. This foundation can be generalized to a wide range of daily activities.

Why the horse?

The horse's unique walk transfers variable, repetitive and rhythmic movement to the client, which provides sensory input to the brain and nervous system. The resultant responses in the client are similar to human movement patterns of the pelvis while walking. An average horse takes 120 walking steps per minute, allowing 120 chances each minute for a client to experience this unique movement that cannot be replicated by other apparatus or equipment. During a session the therapist, working in conjunction with a specially trained horse handler, can grade or adapt this movement to provide a "just right challenge" for each client. Most clients respond very enthusiastically to treatment and thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to engage with the horse in an environment that is much different than the typical therapy clinic.

Who benefits from hippotherapy

A wide variety of clients can experience benefits from OT or PT treatment incorporating the use of hippotherapy. Some diagnoses commonly treated by our therapists include:

  • Attention Deficit Disorder
  • Autism
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Closed Head Injury
  • Developmental Delay
  • Down Syndrome
  • Emotional Disorders
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Paralysis
  • Scoliosis
  • Spinal Bifida
  • Traumatic Brain Injury

Some conditions that may be contraindicated for OT or PT treatment utilizing hippotherapy include:

  • Orthopedic –
    • Atlantoaxial Instability-describe neurologic symptoms
    • Coxa Arthrosis
    • Cranial Deficits
    • Heterotropic Ossification/Myositis Ossificans
    • Joint Subluxation/dislocation
    • Osteoporosis
    • Pathologic Fractures
    • Spinal Fusion/Fixation
    • Spinal Instability/Abnormalities
  • Neurologic-
    • Hydrocephalus/Shunt
    • Seizure
    • Spina Bifida/Chiari II Malformation/Tethered Cord/Hydromelia
  • Medical/Psychological-
    • Allergies
    • Animal Abuse
    • Physical/Sexual/Emotional Abuse
    • Blood Pressure Control
    • Dangerous to self or others
    • Exacerbations of medical conditions
    • Fire Settings
    • Heart Conditions
    • Hemophilia
    • Medical Instability
    • Migraines
    • PVD
    • Respiratory Compromise
    • Recent Surgeries
    • Substance Abuse
    • Thought Control Disorders
    • Weight Control Disorders
    • Age-under 2 years
    • Indwelling Catheters

How are OT/PT sessions utilizing hippotherapy different than therapeutic riding?

Occupational and physical therapy sessions must be conducted by a licensed occupational or physical therapist with additional specialized training in using the movement of the horse. Occupational and physical therapy are medical treatments requiring a doctor's prescription which aim to achieve functional outcomes. Therapeutic riding lessons are conducted by PATH International (formerly NARHA) registered or advanced riding instructors who are specially trained in working with people with disabilities. While there is an inherent therapeutic value in horseback riding, therapeutic riding lessons focus on teaching riding skills for recreational purposes.

Is there an age limit for participating in hippotherapy?

Before registering for OT or PT the therapist will usually meet with the client to determine if he or she is appropriate for our program. While there is no upper age limit for participating in hippotherapy, generally children are not accepted before age 2. Children younger than 2 years old do not yet possess neurological systems that are mature enough to accommodate to the sensory input, which is produced by sitting astride a moving horse. Children must also be able to be fitted with and wear an approved riding helmet for the duration of each hippotherapy session. Some young children lack the neck control necessary to hold up the head with the additional weight of a helmet when on a moving horse. While age 2 is used as a general guideline for inclusion in utilizing hippotherapy as a treatment strategy, this varies from child to child. Some children may be 3 or 4 years old before they are neurologically mature enough to be able to derive maximum benefit from OT or PT utilizing hippotherapy. In some instances it may be determined that using hippotherapy as a treatment strategy is not appropriate for a specific client in which case the therapist can recommend alternative treatment suggestions.

About our program

Occupational and physical therapy sessions at Three Gaits are usually individual sessions that last 30 minutes in duration. There may be times when small groups of clients are working with one therapist when it is determined that this is the best way for each client to meet his or her therapy goals. Occupational and Physical therapy at Three Gaits is conducted by a highly trained occupational therapist or physical therapist in collaboration with a horse handler and trained volunteers who act as sidewalkers or in other capacities during the session. The average number of staff and volunteers working with each client during a single OT or PT session is between 3-5. Since we rely on so many people during each session it is important for OT and PT clients to come at a regular day and time each week and to arrive on time for the session. We are often not able to accommodate clients who arrive more than 10 minutes late to a scheduled session.


Three Gaits, Inc.     Therapeutic Horsemanship Center
(608) 877-9086     3gaits@3gaits.org
Mailing Address:  P.O. Box 153     Oregon, WI  53575
Physical Address (No Mail):  3741 Hwy 138 W     Stoughton, WI  53589


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Page Last Modified 01/03/19