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Why Children with Special Needs Feel Better with Hippotherapy Sessions: A Conceptual Review

Hippotherapy literally means ‘‘therapy with the help of a horse’’ and is derived from the Greek word hippos, meaning ‘‘horse.’’ Hippocrates was the first to describe the benefits of hippotherapy for rehabilitation purposes. Although this therapy has many years of history, few scholars have defined the theoretical bases of hippotherapy and less about how psychologic, physical, social, and educational benefits can be achieved through hippotherapy in children with special needs.

This article is designed from a chronological perspective to provide mental health professionals, educators, and others with current information on how horses can be used as a main tool in an effective and holistic therapy for children with special needs. This is supported by current literature review through a conceptual framework of hippotherapy explained by dynamic system theory along with the theory of neuronal group selection and sensory integration theory.

Hippotherapy, by affecting multiple systems such as the sensory, muscular, skeletal, limbic, vestibular, and ocular systems simultaneously, leads to psychologic, social, and educational benefits that will be evidenced in behavioral patterns used in other environments.

This article considered dynamic systems theory along with neuronal group selection and sensory integration theory as a theoretical basis for explaining how hippotherapy can be a successful intervention tool for children with special needs. The authors suggested that through the repetitive, rhythmical movement of the horse in hippotherapy, a child experiences and begins to anticipate movements with each step of the walking horse. Children learn to produce compensatory movements that reduce the displacements of their center of gravity and keep them on the moving horse. Practice and experience are believed to lead to the modification and reorganization of the central nervous system. By affecting multiple systems such as the sensory, muscular, skeletal, limbic, vestibular, and ocular systems simultaneously, hippotherapy leads to psychologic, social, and educational benefits that will be evidenced in behavioral patterns used in other environments. The authors recommend future experimental studies examining the utility of hippotherapy as a holistic intervention in patients diagnosed with a broad number of pathologies, during a minimum of 12 weeks of continuous intervention and with a long-term follow-up.

Link: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/acm.2009.0229

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