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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Vogel: Healing On Horseback

On a beautiful October afternoon, horseback riding is a wonderful way to get off the beaten path and observe the fall foliage. But riding a horse is more than a means of transportation, and for people with disabilities horses can be an important part of their therapy.

Hippotherapy, or using horses to help treat patients, originated with the ancient Greeks in the fifth century B.C.E. It was used to help rehabilitate wounded soldiers.

The medical benefits of riding horses was rediscovered and formalized in the 1960s in Europe and brought to the United States in the 1980s. The pelvis of a horse has a three dimensional movement that’s similar to the movement when humans walk. By carefully modulating the horse’s gate, a therapist can give patients just the right amount of physical and sensory stimulation.

Hippotherapy has been used in the United States to treat patients with disabilities as varied as autism, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, head injury, stroke, and psychiatric disorders.

Cerebral palsey has been the focus of most of the scientific studies designed to test and quantify the benefits of hippotherapy. In 2007, the journal of Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology published a meta study based on 6 earlier studies and concluded that hippotherapy is indeed medically useful in improving the gross motor skills of children with cerebral palsy.

Most of the research about the benefits of hippotherapy as a treatment for children with autism tends to be in the form of case studies. Liz Claude, the executive director of High Horses Therapeutic Riding Center at Brookside Farm in White River Junction observes that for autistic children, horseback riding seems to quiet their minds. Liz goes on to say that there’s no question that for children with autism, therapeutic riding improves their body awareness and self-confidence.

The latest use of hippotherapy is with Veterans. Robert Foley was a Navy Seal who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and chronic pain. In a moving video he describes how working with horses changed his life. He talks about how horses respond to humans in ways that are authentic and non-judgemental – and this helped him rebuild a sense of trust. As Robert put it, “I feel the horse and that horse feels me. The result is healing and peace of mind.”

Not all horses have the temperament or gate to be therapy horses, just as not all dogs can be therapy dogs. But nowadays when I see horses grazing in the field I no longer think of them just as beautiful animals and reminders of an earlier era, but as amazing healers.