By Barbara Sternberg, Ph.D.
Hippotherapy is the technical term for therapy with horses. While it has been around for more than a century, hippotherapy came to the fore when a woman named Liz Harwell, whose legs were essentially paralyzed by polio, won the Silver Medal in dressage at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. Today, half a century later, hippotherapy programs are ongoing in multiple countries, and therapeutic riding programs have been developed for people with physical, psychological, cognitive, social, and behavioral problems including cerebral palsy, spina bifida, mental retardation, and depression. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association makes a distinction between hippotherapy, or horse-based physical therapy under the direction of a licensed therapist, and therapeutic riding, which utilizes different methods to improve strength, muscle control, eye-hand coordination, and social skills.
Riding a horse involves what physical therapists refer to as three-dimensional movement. With each step, the person’s pelvis tilts up, sideways and forward, and back. The horse repeats the sequence and the sensation of these bodily motions for people with physical or neurological handicaps, reacquainting their muscles with how they are supposed to move. The pressure of the horse’s hooves hitting the ground is also three-dimensional, and stimulates the rider’s knees, hips, and spine. It is believed that this movement stimulates the brain, directly affecting the nervous system.
Even speech and language therapy can be enhanced by therapeutic riding programs. Ruth Dismuke-Blakely, a speech therapist from New Mexico, has been working with patients on horseback since 1981. She believes that most speech therapy addresses only the mouth and the brain, disconnected from the rest of the body, but that in fact, the rest of the body is very important for speech. Horses, with their well organized neurological systems, “lend their ordered system to a disordered one.”
Other speech therapists also find horseback riding a therapeutic venue in which to conduct treatment because patients learn more quickly when engaged in real-life settings than when in an office. Hippotherapy is actually approved by the American Speech and Hearing Association as a therapeutic modality.
Psychotherapy takes place in the realm of horses, too, specifically in the stall, along with the horse, the patient, and the therapist. According to psychotherapist Marilyn Sokoloff, PhD the additional aspect of having a horse to touch and interact with speeds up the pace of psychotherapy. The human-horse interaction gives the therapy a here-and-now component to analyze that can cut through resistances that have hindered progress for years. Sokoloff has used horses in group therapy sessions with women, convening the sessions in a horse barn with the women seated in chairs in a circle and the horses in their stalls all around them. Physical contact with the horses is encouraged as a mode of putting the women in touch with their feelings. These women suffer from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and physical and sexual abuse and are challenged by the horses to find new ways of control. Getting a horse to do what you want raises issues of power and control which are confronted by the women in the group, often to powerful effect.