Equine Assisted Therapy, Hippotherapy, The Hippotherapy Team

Meet the Hippotherapy Team: Part 3 – The Horse

This is part 3 of a 5 part series about the hippotherapy team.  In Part 1 we learned that there are many people involved in making hippotherapy sessions possible, and that each member of the hippotherapy team plays an important role.  In Part 2 we learned that The therapist is the leader of the hippotherapy team and about the importance of finding an qualified physical, occupational or speech therapist.  As a reminder, only physical, occupational and speech therapy professionals can provide therapy using horses.

The therapist is responsible to choose an appropriate horse for each patient when incorporating hippotherapy into a therapy session.  Therapists are not able to provide high quality therapy using equine movement without the right horse.

In this article we will learn about the critical role that horse choice plays in the therapy session, and the many factors a therapist must consider when choosing a horse for use in physical therapy, occupational therapy or speech therapy treatment.

Temperament:  Horses are generally wonderful animals to work with, however not every horse has the temperament needed to be a great therapy horse.  Horse temperaments are sometimes measured on a scale of 1 to 10, or sometimes on a scale of 1 to 5. In both cases, a rating of 1 indicates an extremely calm, cool demeanor, while the higher number indicates the opposite — what horse people typically refer to as “hot.” On a 10-point scale, then, a rating of 1 to 4 would indicate a fairly calm horse, while 6 to10 would be a horse with a more excitable demeanor. A number 5 places the horse somewhere in the middle, or “warm.” On a 5-point scale, number 3 would be the mid-point indicator between the two extremes.  Therapy horses generally should have a temperament of 1-3 n a 10 point scale and 1-2 on a 5 point scale.  The horse that is chosen should be calm, but NOT lazy.  Impulsion and a willingness to move forward at the walk are critical traits of a good horse for hippotherapy.

Conformation: When examining horses for conformation, it is important to break things down into key principles to avoid becoming overwhelmed when putting the overall picture together. There are five main criteria to evaluate when examining a horse’s conformation: balance, structural correctness, way of going, muscling, and breed/sex character (also known as type).

Balance is essential for both quality of movement and performance in any event, and is determined by the horse’s bone structure. Balance refers to equal distribution of muscling and weight from the front of the horse to the back of the horse, from its top to its bottom and from side to side. However, balance is not determined by the horse’s weight but instead by proper angles and proportions of different parts of the body. In other words, a horse can be light bodied or heavy bodied and still be balanced if its bone structure allows for equal distribution of that weight. Proper balance enables the horse to carry itself in a manner to allow for easy maneuverability, greater power and smoother movement.

Structural correctness is critical for soundness as well as correct and clean movement. This is determined by proper structure and alignment of bone, particularly pertaining to the legs. Structural correctness is tied very closely to balance and influences the way a horse moves.

Way of going, also known as tracking, refers to the way the horse moves. The horse is evaluated both for cleanness and quality of movement.

Muscling is also a consideration when evaluating the horse, though not nearly as important as balance and structural correctness. The quantity, quality and distribution of the muscle are evaluated when looking at the horse from its sides, front and back.

Breed and sex character (i.e., “type”) refers to how well a horse represents its particular breed and sex. Most breeds have unique qualities by which they can be identified. Judging a horse by its type refers to judging how well it resembles the ideal horse of that breed. This may or may not be important depending on the expectations of the horse. Horses competing in many performance events do not necessarily have to represent a breed or sex well to be competitive. However, for horses competing in halter events this criteria is important.

Confidence: During a session, a therapist may choose to use varying equipment, toys, games and activities.  Horses must be confident and not become upset by items used in a therapy session, or equipment such as wheel chairs and canes.

Movement:  The movement of the horse is critical for an effective session.  The horse should have a high quality walk.  She horse should be able to move freely at the walk, trot and canter in both directions without evidence of lameness.  Horses with “lameness” issues, arthritis, or other soundness issues and horses who are not fit are not suitable for hippotherapy.  Most frequently, therapy sessions only require the horse to walk.  At times, this leads people to think older horses with arthritic changes, or horses who are only sound at the walk are still suitable for hippotherapy.  In the majority of cases this is not accurate.  Horses who do not move freely do not provide quality input to the patient, and will decrease the therapeutic benefits of incorporating equine movement into treatment.

A good horse for hippotherapy is not easy to find.  Therapists must carefully consider many factors when choosing an equine partner for use in physical therapy, occupational therapy or speech therapy sessions.  A good therapy horse with quality movement is worth it’s weight in gold.

Speech Language Pathology in Motion is a private practice located in Hauppauge and Islandia NY.  Visit our website to learn more about us: www.speechinmotion.com

Tina is the owner of Speech Language Pathology in Motion, a private practice on Long Island, NY. Her continuing education has included training in numerous speech language pathology treatment techniques including animal assisted therapy, Hippotherapy, PROMPT, DIRFloortime, The SOS Approach to Feeding, NDT, LAMP, and TEACCH. Tina has been recognized as a board certified hippotherapy clinical specialist (HPCS) since 2011 and is one of only ten SLPs in the United States to hold this credential.

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© 2015, Tina M. Rocco, M.A. CCC-SLP, HPCS. All rights reserved.

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