FAQ on Hippotherapy

Frequently Asked Questions about Hippotherapy for Individuals with Autism

1. What is hippotherapy?
Hippotherapy is a type of treatment which incorporates the use of horses into the therapeutic environment for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Hippotherapy focuses on sensory, speech and social deficits common in children on the spectrum. These are the major deficits associated with autism, and it is unique to find a treatment which addresses all three components. Most authorized treatment centers employ the use of horses, and provide equestrian therapy. Clients learn to interact with the animal with reciprocity, building a safe foundation for communication, other awareness and social interaction. These skills are then transferred into a social setting with other children. How does the horseback riding therapy benefit my autistic child?

2. Is hippotherapy safe for my child with autism?
Hippotherapy is incredibly safe for children with autism. Animals are trained by highly qualified professionals. They are also attended by several supervising professionals during all client contact sessions. Clients are carefully and meticulously screened as candidates for treatment prior to starting sessions with the animal. Hippotherapy treatment can only commence after all precautions have been taken and covered. For these reasons, it is deemed safe for children with autism. Many children benefit from this intervention, lowering their risks for self-injuries and anxiety attacks. Every treatment carries with it some form of risk. Therapists seek to minimize the risk to any treatment as significantly as possible.

3. What do researchers have to say about hippotherapy?
Hippotherapy is not without its skeptics in therapeutic circles. However, research indicated that speech, anxiety and compliance skills improved as much as seventy per cent with a regular course of treatment for clients with autism. These studies were taken by hippotherapists themselves and promoted as beneficial outcomes of the treatment. While they are not yet substantiated by the whole of the autism community, many believe in the validity of the intervention. Since little is known about the causes and outcomes of autism spectrum disorders, hippotherapy cannot be entirely dismissed as a viable treatment. There are many clients who strongly recommend hippotherapy as an intervention while others decry it as junk science. Since every child on the spectrum reacts differently to intervention strategies, there is absolutely no reason to rule it out altogether.  The American Hippotherapy Association is a group of professionals who work in the various fields related to autism. These professionals govern the use of hippotherapy in the United States.

4. What therapeutic benefit does the horse provide?
The focus of hippotherapy is on the movement of the horse. Horses move in response to their handlers or riders. The child with autism learns to communicate desired movements to the horse, establishing joint attention and reciprocity. These are often key factors that are missing in optimal development and are addressed in the hippotherapy setting. Other benefits from hippotherapy include improved muscle tone, strength, balance and coordination. Sensory processing has also been shown to improve with regular sessions in hippotherapy. Through the interactions with the horse, the child learns to be aware of his body and his ability to use it to communicate. The horse reduces anxiety by responding to the communication effort without the pressure of verbal language. These benefits combine to make hippotherapy one of the most comprehensive treatments available.

5. How do I find a center for hippotherapy?
There are centers located throughout the country which provide hippotherapy services. These are not to be confused with riding therapy, which does not provide the communication and social based treatments associated with hippotherapy. In order to find a center, start with a physician recommendation. This will ensure that the child receives the benefits of the treatment that address the medical and physiological aspects of autism. As hippotherapy gains popularity as an effective and comprehensive treatment for autism spectrum disorders, centers have emerged in nearly every major city. Treatment centers should offer a complete staff of qualified therapists and equestrian handlers. If a physician is not familiar with hippotherapy or its benefits, it might be a good idea to consult with the local regional center. These caseworkers can recommend physicians and other medical professionals who can assist in choosing a center and program.

6. How much does hippotherapy cost?
Hippotherapy is more expensive that riding therapy. This is because of the level of training involved in developing and implementing programs. There are also more precautions taken with both the animals and the clients. Evaluation costs are often separate from therapy session costs. Typically, these range between $60 and $250, depending on the length of session, location, therapist and type of horse.

7. Is hippotherapy covered by insurance?
Unfortunately not many insurance companies cover expenses  However it may varies on severity of the autism and insurance company’s policies, you must contact your insurance company and ask for the approvals.

8. How will a horse help improve my child’s speech development?
The horse will serve as a therapeutic tool for the therapist to engage the child. The first stages of hippotherapy involve nonverbal language and movement response. As the horse moves in response to the child’s nonverbal commands (body posture, heel pressure, rein tightening and leaning position) the child learns functional communication skills. After a short time, the child is able to give one word commands to the animal, with a guaranteed and consistent response. The horse does not present verbal pressure from the child, so the child can focus on his own language. Then, once these skills are mastered they can be transferred into social settings. The horses receive specialized training in responses and are temperate matches for each client.

9. My child has never been around horses. Will this matter?
Many children with autism are exposed to horses for the first time during hippotherapy sessions. The introduction phase is different for each child. However, most therapists find that the child is able to adjust to the animal within the first few sessions. These are animals that are specially trained to work with special needs children.  Most parents are pleasantly surprised by how quickly their child adapts to the horse.

10. Will my child need special clothing for riding?
Loose fitting clothing, pants and closed toed shoes are all that is needed for a successful ride. Riding clothes do not need to be purchased. Helmets are provided by the therapy centers in most cases. The child will not need boots; tennis shoes will suffice. The more comfortably the child dresses, the more secure they will be during session.

11. How long are hippotherapy sessions?
Session length depends upon the therapeutic program chosen. Some children are able to handle longer sessions while others need shorter sessions. Session length can last anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours. Some centers incorporate social skills training as a transfer clinic on site. This is where the children transfer the skills they have learned in therapy to a social group setting. Not all facilities offer this step.

12. What ages are appropriate for hippotherapy?
Hippotherapy suits anyone who can sit up on a horse. Children aged 2 through adult are able to receive the benefits of this treatment. Clients over 170 pounds should take caution, as the horse may not be able to accommodate their weight. However, there are movement treatments under the umbrella of hippotherapy which do not incorporate riding. Clients who are too big to ride can benefit from these intervention strategies and reap the same benefits as riding. This is also one of the reasons hippotherapy is different from riding therapy.

Check out,
1). Animal Assisted Therapy for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
2). Does dolphin assisted therapy work?

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