Guest post by Alyson who blogs at wordsofhisheart. (Make sure you check out her blog. She has a wealth of great speech resources there.)
The first time I heard about hippotherapy, I didn't take it very seriously. I envisioned children who should have been in physical therapy instead donning cowboy hats and going for a leisurely trail ride.
But when Noah turned 5 and still wasn't speaking, I remembered posts I had seen on our local Down syndrome network from parents singing the praises of hippotherapy. After doing online research and watching some amazing YouTube videos of children participating in speech, occupational, and physical therapy while riding, it became clear that these therapies were successfully coordinated into the hippotherapy session, mimicking real life experiences.
Seeing the integration peaked my interest because Noah was having a difficult time processing the information necessary for speech along with all the other skills he was acquiring. When his speech therapist confirmed a diagnosis of apraxia, I knew it was time to pursue hippotherapy.
Was it grasping at straws? Maybe. But the amazing results we’ve seen in the four weeks Noah has been participating in hippotherapy have convinced me of its value as a legitimate therapeutic modality.
The Four Week Scoop
Week 1: An adult rode on the horse with Noah. They spent a few minutes in the arena walking and then throwing balls into a basketball hoop where Noah worked on color identification. Next they rode outside on the trail where the trees were full of hanging animals—a perfect opportunity to work on vocabulary and signing. I was worried that he would be terrified; he wasn't.
Week 2: Noah rode the horse by himself. His therapist and the arena volunteers walked along either side of the horse. During this session Noah's posture had improved. Instead of the common low tone slouch, Noah was sitting straight and tall. This was an instinctual posture correction that was necessary to feel the most secure on the horse. No prompting was necessary.
Week 3: Noah couldn't get on that horse fast enough. When his time on horseback ended, Noah’s PT had him do some running, throwing, and climbing using onsite equipment.
Week 4. Noah rode that horse backward! The PT actually had him sit facing the horse's tail for part of the session. He rode in from the trail in that position, and it was evident by his posture and expression that his confidence level was very high. After the ride, he continued his running, throwing, and climbing.
The biggest change for Noah has been the area of speech. Prior to hippotherapy, he could say only a few words clearly and would attempt speech only if it was modeled for him. After only four sessions, Noah speaks about 20 words clearly and is making approximations of several more, sometimes spontaneously. Something extraordinary happens to Noah when he is up on that horse and it carries over to his daily living. The feeling of the rhythm of the horse walking seems to be helping Noah’s brain organize what it needs to make speech happen.
Hippotherapy Vs. Horseback Riding
There is a notable difference between hippotherapy and horseback riding. In hippotherapy, the horse is used as the treatment tool to achieve physical, speech, and occupational therapy goals. In horseback riding, the rider's focus is to improve on their horsemanship skills, and in the process develop companionship, responsibility, confidence, and leadership skills.
So, you're interested in hippotherapy for your child... now what? If your child is at least 2 years old and currently receiving early intervention services, ask his or her therapists if they offer board-certified hippotherapy or if they know of a local therapist that does. I was not even aware Noah's center offered it until I asked. You can also visit the American Hippotherapy Association to find a therapist in your area. Remember, this is not just a physical therapy option; speech and occupational therapists can also be board certified to conduct hippotherapy sessions as well.
And now for the question everyone wants answered: Will insurance pay for it? Under some policies, yes insurance will pay for it. When submitting therapy claims, the insurance company is not usually interested in what equipment is used in therapy; they just want to know who provided the service and that the therapy did take place. Unless a policy specifically excludes equine-assisted (horse) therapy, they will likely cover it. Unfortunately, Medicaid is an insurer who specifically excludes hippotherapy. The good news is that many of the hippotherapy centers offer scholarships, so don't hesitate to ask if you need one.
I was so excited after reading Alyson’s post that I went straight to the AHA and located a few therapists in our area. We are going to pursue hippotherapy! How about you? Has your child participated in hippotherapy? If so, were you impressed with the results? If your child hasn’t done it yet, are you interested in checking out hippotherapy?