Hippotherapy refers to using a horse and its movements as a way of rehabilitation that might improve motor, sensory, and communication skills.

When recommended by a physiotherapist or occupational therapist, children with Rett syndrome can work under the supervision of a certified horse trainer on specific therapeutic goals, like better balance, coordination, posture, fine motor control, and articulation, as well as improvements in awareness, relaxation, socialization, and cognitive skills.

How hippotherapy works

The movements of a horse are variable, rhythmic, and repetitive. While sitting astride a horse, every muscle in rider’s body has to respond to the animal’s movements.

Hippotherapy also activates all kinds of sensory integration, stimulating such senses as tactile (sense of touch), vestibular (sense of balance), visual, olfactory (sense of smell), and proprioceptive (sense of self-movement and body positions). These senses are compromised in people with Rett syndrome.

Therapeutic objectives

Therapeutic goals of hippotherapy for Rett syndrome patients include:

  • Purposeful hand use, as patients learn to hold the reins and improve their ability to grip
  • Body balance as the rider’s hips and spine, and other muscles, must absorb the horse’s movements to maintain balance and avoid falling or slumping backward or forward. These responses are similar to those required in normal walking. Start-stop movements and changes in direction and speed taken by a horse also can strengthen and improve muscle tone
  • Strengthening the upper and lower body
  • Improving social and communication/language skills
  • Helping with focus and endurance
  • Learning a skill in a fun and relaxed atmosphere
  • Helping sensory integration of inputs from receptors in the skin, joints, muscles, eyes, ears, and nose
  • Increasing a child’s awareness and attention span
  • Enabling postural control that may delay scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine) by enhancing symmetrical muscle activity
  • Improving cognitive thinking

Researchers, however, note that the potential benefits of hippotherapy for neurological disorders, like those listed above, are not yet clear and further study is needed.

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