Horses as Healers in College Hippotherapy Course

Horses are an integral part of Kentucky's culture. They possess qualities of balance, coordination, speed, reflex, strength, endurance, and stamina. Outside the traditional setting of a racetrack or an open field, though, horses can also be healers.

Faculty and students at the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences, in partnership with Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital, harness the healing power of specially trained horses to help improve the lives of the physically and mentally challenged.

Hippotherapy, from the Greek "hippos," meaning "horse," literally means treatment or therapy aided by a horse. Specially trained physical, occupational, and speech therapists use this therapy for clients who have movement dysfunction. Clients with a variety of diagnoses can benefit from hippotherapy, including those with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, developmental delay, traumatic brain injury, stroke, autism, and learning or language disabilities.

The horse provides sensory input to the rider through its variable, rhythmic, and repetitive walk. The movement responses in the rider are similar to human movement patterns of the pelvis while walking. The variability of the horse's gait enables the therapist to grade the degree of sensory input to the client and then use this movement in combination with other clinical treatments to achieve desired results.

Studies have shown that hippotherapy can improve people's balance, posture, mobility, and function. Hippotherapy might also affect psychological, cognitive, and behavioral and communication functions for clients of all ages. It is also used to provide those with life-threatening illnesses a reprieve from traditional medical treatments. The riders develop a beneficial relationship with their horse through grooming, caring for, and getting to know the animal.

Hippotherapy at the UK College of Health Sciences was developed as an elective course in 2000 by Janice Kuperstein, PhD, MSEd, associate professor of physical therapy in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences. In the eight years Kuperstein taught the class, she estimates 120 patients received treatment.

Kuperstein says several things about riding make it a good choice for human physical therapy, including the shape of the horse's body, the rhythmic motion of the horse's gait, the changes in motion based on changes in gait, the neutral warmth of the horse's body, and the ability to change directions and speed of motion easily.

"Therapy in this environment encompasses multiple body systems, such as the sensory experience, cardiopulmonary challenges, and balance," Kuperstein said. "An excellent hippotherapy horse can become almost a partner in your therapeutic intervention. I have seen horses adjust their own bodies when they sense a client is unsteady or even stop working when they sense that a client has had enough, and sometimes this is in response to extremely subtle cues that the therapist might not notice initially."

In 2008 Kuperstein handed over the program's reins to Joan Darbee, PhD, lecturer in physical therapy in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, who now teaches the hippotherapy course located at the Central Kentucky Riding for Hope barn at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Physical therapy students who participate in the elective course meet traditional educational goals, but they also gain a unique perspective on the value of community engagement, volunteerism and advocacy, and, of course, they learn another role for horses in the "Horse Capital of the World."

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