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Equine Therapy, Hippotherapy and Therapeutic Riding… What’s the Difference?

Organizations across the globe offer a variety of services and activities incorporating horses to aid people with special needs. Some of the most prevalent services are “hippotherapy” and “therapeutic/adaptive horseback riding.” Sometimes in the media, and even in scholarly research and within the field of equine-assisted actives and therapies itself, the terms “hippotherapy,” “therapeutic/adaptive riding” and “equine therapy” appear interchangeably. However, these services are actually all very different.

In recent years, there is a bit of epidemic with the term “equine therapy.” Often enough you’ll hear these words used to describe any type of service that incorporates horses into an activity or therapy to aid a person with a disability. For example, a parent may say, “my child started equine therapy to help with low tone.” In this sense, the term “equine therapy” is a misnomer that in its true definition has nothing to do with services benefitting this parent’s child or any human. “Equine therapy” denotes services that are being performed for the sole benefit of the horse. Equine acupuncture, equine massage, equine chiropractic therapy, equine electrotherapy, equine hydrotherapy, equine heat/cold therapy and equine magnetic therapy are all examples of equine therapies. Equine therapy consists of rehabilitation methods typically performed by an equine practitioner to improve the health or quality of life for equine patients. Equine therapy may assist the horse in injury recovery, improving mobility, alleviating symptoms and maintaining health. Equine therapy singularly benefits the horse. At Ride On St. Louis our horses benefit from various forms of equine therapies that support their overall wellness and comfort, so that they may better assist in the health improvements of the children and adults with disabilities they serve.

The term “hippotherapy” refers to how occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speechlanguage pathology professionals use evidence-based practice and clinical reasoning in the purposeful manipulation of equine movement to engage the human sensory, neuromotor and cognitive systems to achieve functional outcomes. In conjunction with the equine environment and other treatment strategies, hippotherapy is part of a patient’s integrated plan of care.

Documentation dating as far back at 460 BC discusses the human health benefits of riding, and has since been documented through the centuries. More recently, in the 1960s members of the German, Swiss and Austrian medical field began to view the horse as an adjunct to physical therapy and named this endeavor “hippotherapy” (hippo being the Greek word for horse.) A decade later, physical therapists in the United States and Canada began to develop treatment uses for the movement of the horse. In the 90s the American Hippotherapy Association was formed and established therapist registration and standards of practice.

Hippotherapy treatments will always be performed by a licensed (physical, occupational or speech) therapist. Additionally, therapists incorporating this type of modality into their patient’s treatment plan should have extensive knowledge in their field of therapy as well as knowledge of the equine and how to incorporate the horse and the horse’s movement into a treatment to produce functional outcomes. At Ride On St. Louis we offer equine-assisted physical therapy and Equine-assisted occupational therapy as a treatment strategy for those with neuromuscular, cognitive and/or skeletal disorders. Standard concepts, practices and procedures within the fields of physical and occupational therapy, including hippotherapy, are applied. Therapists at Ride On St. Louis are registered through the American Hippotherapy Association and/or Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. The terms “hippotherapy” and “equine-assisted therapy” may be used synonymously. Therapeutic riding, however, may not be used in place of either term.

Therapeutic riding is an equine-assisted activity for the purpose of contributing to the cognitive, physical, emotional and social wellbeing of individuals with special needs. Therapeutic activities are often recreational and may cause someone to feel happier and more relaxed. (Therapy may or may not be therapeutic). While equine-assisted therapy is administered by a therapist, therapeutic riding is conducted by a therapeutic riding instructor. Therapeutic riding instructors should have elevated knowledge and skills in equine management, horsemanship, communication/instruction, teaching methodology and disabilities. At Ride On St. Louis the therapeutic riding client is encouraged to perform horsemanship activities (horse care and/or riding skills) directed toward goals that transfer to everyday activities, challenges and living. The terms “therapeutic riding” and “adaptive riding” may be used interchangeably. Ride On St. Louis employs Advanced Therapeutic Riding Instructors through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.

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