The hippotherapy setting and practice model incorporates a multisensory environment appealing to a variety of psychosocial needs. Humans have long been connected to horses, with the first domestication occurring on the Eurasian steppes 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. New evidence suggests our history together could begin closer to 10,000 years ago with a broader geographic reach (Cohen, 2012). Horses have been used for food, warfare, transportation and companionship; they played a critical role in building the American frontier (Cohen, 2012). Our equine partners have a long and storied history in human hearts and minds. In equine assisted occupational therapy, the horse is a multisensory, movement oriented, dynamic system used as a treatment tool. The psychological impact of this huge, sensory rich animal as an equal and separate other plays a crucial role in the treatment’s effectiveness.
At My Heroes Hippotherapy in Fort Collins, CO, the horse facilitates psychosocial growth in addition to a variety of new physical skills. During hippotherapy sessions, the simple existence of therapy in a barn setting changes the typical dynamic. Clients are no longer under fluorescent clinic lights and a plastic gym environment; they are invited to be outside in the fresh air among horses, peers, and the natural world. This is a multisensory experience; warm bodies, dirt, dust, wind, barn smells, varied terrain, plants, nickering and whinnying… the list goes on. The need for language is reduced as clients interact on many levels; physically, emotionally, spiritually. The horse is a non-verbal partner (Granados & Agis, 2011). Clients observe horse behavior, think about their own behavior, and react in relationship to the animal (Granados & Agis, 2011), fostering interactions that may not otherwise transpire in a strictly human environment. The horse is a non-judgmental partner; clients experience a release of endorphins contributing to motivation and satisfaction (Granados & Agis, 2011). Clients develop a new sense of control and awareness in their body while riding as the horse’s gait facilitates gentle movement, contributing to increased self-esteem and self-efficacy. One My Heroes caregiver recently reported her 3-year old girl to be more confident and adventurous, leading to greater social participation (My Heroes client caregiver, personal communications, November 2, 2017). The client-horse bond naturally facilitates a variety of psychosocial qualities including trust, safety, judgment, respect, security, love, autonomy, and self-control (Granados & Agis, 2011). Relationships created between clients and horses in the barn create an environment ripe for therapeutic outcomes; psychosocial, biomechanical and beyond. Finally, My Heroes is dedicated to creating a community oriented, inclusive, and family friendly atmosphere. My Heroes thrives on a volunteer staff who interact with clients; they sponsor community events like the annual Trick or Treat Street to foster social participation, interaction and relationship building with all members of the Fort Collins community.
The horse-human relationship and barn environment vastly outpace the psychosocial adaptations and efforts of most clinical settings I’ve experienced on fieldwork. Horses require a specific pace, timing, and feel that builds bonds and grounds us as human beings in a way not otherwise recreated in the clinical setting. I believe deeply in the therapeutic power of the natural world, and this rotation has been no exception. Anecdotally, I have witnessed more spontaneous language from clients when riding outside and interacting with the wind, birds, trees, and horses. Someday I hope to contribute to the growing body of literature supporting these outcomes by conducting clinical trials and research studies of my own. Horses do not care if their human companion is disabled or different-bodied, they are curious and interactive just the same, thus levelling the playing field of social and psychological inclusion. The focus of a hippotherapy session is not on a problem or deficit to be fixed, but on the novelty and privilege of being an equestrian; basically, belonging to a community and practice larger than the individual. Horses are a powerful holistic treatment tool who have much to offer their human partners of all sizes, shapes, and abilities.
Cohen, J. (2009, January). Horse domestication happened across Eurasia, study shows. History. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/news/horse-domestication-happened-across-eurasia-study-shows
Granados, A.C. & Agis, I.F. (2011). Why children with special needs feel better with hippotherapy sessions: A conceptual review. The Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, 17, 191-197. doi: 10.1089/acm.2009.0229