Stories > Hippotherapy

Hippotherapy is a form of psychomotor therapy that makes use of the horse’s rhythm and dynamics to influence posture and mobility. The horse’s movement offers a sensorial discharge because it is both repetitive and varies in rhythm. These movements provide similar stimuli to the pelvis and back as that of the human walk. The three dimensional range of movement provides the perception of motion and works on motor control, spatial cognition and several other psychomotor skills. This kind of therapy is used to address not only motor issues but also cognitive and communicational, among others. It is especially recommended for work with children, both at a psychological and physical level. Among its benefits, it is especially good at reducing spasticity and muscular contractions associated with cerebral paralysis, at working general movement coordination, muscle tone and posture, balance, gestural and oral communication, vocabulary and articulation, socialization, and of course building a basic respect for living things and nature.

Thanks to:
Francisco, Gustavo, Pedro, Martim
Sónia Batista and Patricia Batista
Rita Prata (AARF)
Paulo Abrantes and Maria dos Prazeres Abrantes (Francisco’s parents)
Caeiro da Silva (instructor at CHS)
Centro Hípico da Sobreda
Associação Almadense Rumo ao Futuro
Marta Vaz

Lisbon, July 2013

Sonia Batista readies the horse “Negrita” for their first therapeutic session of the day. She and her twin sister Patricia are both psychomotricity therapists specializing in psychomotor rehabilitation and hippotherapy. Having been born in the countryside of Portugal, in a region with strong equestrian traditions, horses have surrounded them all their lives and while pursuing their degree in the field of psychomotricity they were drawn to techniques which incorporated the use of the animal as a therapeutic vehicle and medium.

Rita Prata, clinical psychologist and AARF’s occupational facilities coordinator. In the background, Liliana is passing by a large picture board which contains dozens of photographs of clients and residents. “Associação Almadense Rumo ao Futuro”, founded in 1991, is a small NGO which maintains a residential home and activity centre for people with multi disabilities aged 15 to adults. They currently work with about 40 clients, 14 of whom are permanent residents. Residents, clients and staff view each other as an extended family. This is one of the institutions with which Sonia and Patricia collaborate.

The Equestrian Center of Sobreda (CHS) was founded in 1992. They host and care for an average of 10 to 14 horses, provide riding classes for students, advanced training, and other related activities. This is the venue where Sonia and Patricia host their therapy sessions, both for institutions and private clients.

Sonia and Patricia work with Gustavo on his cognitive abilities, on his focus, and on the recognition and naming of numbers. Patricia him with the articulation of a letter, exemplifying it. Exercises are repeated regularly during the course of a therapy session. Gustavo is 7 and he was diagnosed with a moderate autism. Hippotherapy was prescribed by his doctor as part of a range of therapies.

Several therapeutic toys are used in the sessions to work on the clients’ cognitive and psychomotor skills.

Pedro, 20, rides his horse around a course of obstacles placed inside the ring. Pedro has a cerebral paralysis and is a wheel chair user. The movements of the horse serve to mimic the muscular tensions that are felt on the back and spine when one is walking. Stimuli experienced on specific muscles in the back and hips, while riding, help counteract their atrophy. The action of the horse, at a physical and emotional level, is much beyond anything a mechanical device has ever been able to produce. The horse communicates 110 multidimensional and intuitively responsive movements each minute, something a physical therapist alone could never match.

Posture, upper torso control, balance, and muscle strength are all continuously exercised while riding the horse.

A card with letters is used to practice the alphabet. Sonia explains that excess information does not generate added cognitive competence so each exercise must focus on a single specific task or mode of comprehension. Clear contrasts, visual and otherwise cognitive, are important in the elements that are employed in each activity so as to allow their easy differentiation and understanding. Every exercise must be simple and directed to one specific isolated skill in order to be effective.

Martim, 8, performs a coordination exercise. His therapy is focused essentially in left/right body balance through riding and specific motor exercises using pins and rings. He suffers from hemiparesis which affects his left arm’s muscle strength. Light weights are used to stimulate the muscles – in this case 0,5Kg.

Martim guides the horse at the end of his therapy session. Patricia explains that work directed towards physical and motor disabilities is very rewarding for their clients – it is an area where you often see fast and visible improvements whereas in the case of intellectual disabilities these many times deepen and as such require continuous work to maintain and avoid regression of acquired skills and capabilities.

Francisco works on arithmetic skills using small wooden sticks. Sonia calls out numbers and operations to which Francisco must respond by handing her the resulting appropriate amount of tokens. This helps develop abstract thought. Francisco’s father explained that it was in hippotherapy that he began doing arithmetic operations.

At the end of a hippotherapy session Francisco takes his horse back to its box to be unsaddled and cleaned.

Francisco, 9, loves computer games which he can play for hours in a row. On his table he also has a Nintendo portable console which he takes everywhere. Francisco was diagnosed with a 50% autism but is fully communicative and it is very difficult to notice. He has some learning deficits but his father mentions that nowadays he knows more about computers than himself does. Practically self-taught, Francisco is already fluent in using the internet and many applications.

Francisco sits with his parents, Paulo and Maria, on their living room sofa. He has been doing hippotherapy for several years now. Even though sometimes it is very difficult to reconcile his school schedule with the therapy sessions, his parents say that it is fully worth it. Besides being something Francisco loves, second only to computer games, they explain he is enjoying very beneficial effects and visible improvements on both his communication and cognitive skills, and his confidence.