Equine Assisted Therapy, Hippotherapy, Speech Language Pathology in Motion

What is the Difference Between Hippotherapy and Therapeutic Horseback Riding?

Hippotherapy and Therapeutic horseback riding

The positive benefits of interactions between horses and individuals with special needs have been recognized and researched for decades.  As a result. there are a variety of services and activities available for individuals with special needs incorporating horses.  Two of the most common are “therapeutic/adaptive horseback riding lessons” and “hippotherapy”.  Sometimes in the media, and even in the research, the terms “hippotherapy” and “therapeutic horseback riding” appear interchangeably.  However, these are actually two very different things.


According to the American Hippotherapy Association, “The term hippotherapy refers to how occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech-language pathology professionals use evidence-based practice and clinical reasoning in the purposeful manipulation of equine movement as a therapy tool to engage sensory, neuromotor and cognitive systems to promote functional outcomes.  Best practice dictates that occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech-language pathology professionals integrate hippotherapy into the patient’s plan of care, along with other therapy tools and/or strategies.” 

Licensed speech language pathology, occupational therapy, or physical therapy professionals may incorporate hippotherapy into treatment, when appropriate.  The therapist uses the horse’s movement to address therapy goals and functional outcomes within their scope of practice.  Focus is on improving skills such as speech, language, feeding, or fine and gross motor abilities.  It is not likely that your therapist will teach riding or horsemanship skills unless they are doing so to address a specific treatment goal. 

If you are looking for improvements in functional skills it is best to seek out a licensed occupational therapy, physical therapy or speech language pathology professional.  In addition to their license, your therapist should have advanced training in the use of hippotherapy in treatment.  It is best practice for hippotherapy part of a larger total pan of care. Therefore, the therapist who you work with likely will include a variety of tools, techniques and strategies in your treatment.

For more information about hippotherapy or to find a therapist in your area visit The American Hippotherapy Association or The American Hippotherapy Certification Board.

Therapeutic horseback riding lessons (preferred term for this activity is “adaptive horseback riding”):

“Adaptive/therapeutic horseback riding” is a horseback riding lesson that is adapted to meet the special needs of the rider.  Riding instructors teach these lessons.  Therefore, the focus is on the sport of horseback riding and horsemanship skills.  Adaptive horseback riding instructors may have additional training in how to effectively and safely modify horseback riding lessons for the success of individuals with special needs.  Riding instructors are not therapists, hence the riding instructor’s focus is not on habilitation or rehabilitation. 

Some people participate in adaptive riding as a hobby, recreational activity, or social activity.  In addition, others become competitive in the sport of riding, going to horse shows locally, nationally and internationally.  Horseback riding is an enjoyable outdoor activity for many.  Therefore, if you are looking for a fun, recreational or competitive activity for an individual with special needs adaptive horseback riding lessons may be a good choice. 

For more information about adaptive horseback riding visit The United States Para-Equestrian Association, The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International, or Certified Horsemanship Association.

Whether you chose to pursue therapy services that incorporate hippotherapy or riding lessons, it is important to research the qualifications of the professional who you choose to work with. 

For speech language pathology services incorporating hippotherapy on Long Island, check out Speech Language Pathology in Motion

For occupational therapy incorporating hippotherapy on Long Island, check out Occupational Therapy in Motion

And for adaptive horseback riding lessons on Long Island, check out Pal-O-Mine Equestrian

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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