When you think of getting horseback-riding lessons for your kids, you might imagine them training to racehorses or perfect horse show jumps. Or you may see anything horse-related as the kind of thing done by only the rich and the ranch-owning. It may seem like the last thing you’d pursue for your child with a physical, intellectual, or developmental disability. But in fact, riding horses can help kids with special needs in many ways that have nothing to do with fancy maneuvers and fast riding.
The “hippo” in “hippotherapy” is from the Greek word for “horse”; it has nothing to do with the hippos you see at the zoo. It uses the movement of a horse (and the enormous amount of input that delivers to a child’s nervous system) as a therapeutic tool in working toward physical, occupational, and speech therapy goals. Trained therapists will position your child in different ways on the horse and use the focus, balance, and motion in specific ways to facilitate the development of motor skills and efficient sensory processing.
Though it has therapy in the name, therapeutic riding is not as closely tied to physical, occupational, and speech therapy as hippotherapy and is not performed by licensed therapists. However, it can be a wonderful way to give your child with disabilities an experience of horseback riding, both for fun and for the rich sensory experience. Children ride with the support of helpers who make sure they stay focused, alert, and most importantly, on the horse.
Before pursuing hippotherapy or therapeutic riding, check with your child’s other therapists for referrals, guidelines, and some advice on whether this is a good choice for your child. Ideally, all the therapists would confer on skills to target. Horses can be fun helpers for your child in reaching important goals.