Hippotherapy and Speech

October 2, 2009

Hippotherapy and Speech

At Front Range Hippotherapy, we primarily address functional goals through physical therapy intervention. As much as this is effective, we as a team, have noticed marked changes in many of our clients in their speech and language skills. Speech and Language Pathologists have been using hippotherapy as a strategy in a comprehensive treatment approach, but it is not only through a SLP that this can be accomplished. Hippotherapy uses a horse to accomplish traditional speech, language, cognitive, and swallowing goals. Carefully modulated, rhythmic, balanced equine movement offers an effective means of addressing speech and language deficits through facilitation of the physiological systems that support speech and language function. Utilizing hippotherapy, appropriate sensory integration strategies have been integrated into the treatment to facilitate successful communication. Sensory integration via hippotherapy simultaneously addresses the vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile, visual, olfactory, and auditory systems.

Many of our clients arrive without the ability to effectively, verbally communicate. After some sessions aimed at improving respiratory capacity through the three-dimensional movement of their pelvis and spine, as well as ribcage expansion, the client’s breath control has improved, giving them a radically different platform from which to speak. Their first “walk on” or “go” is often as much of a triumph as the ability to sit upright, move toward independent functional mobility, or succeed at a game.

We can also use hippotherapy as a means to improve a patient’s cognitive functioning and receptive language skills. Through basic arousal produced by the rhythmic motion of the horse, clients with low muscle tone and or hypo-aroused resting states can tap into this movement. Then, the basic abilitiy to follow one step commands are seen regularly. We can build on this newfound skill and add special movements to rotate or sidebend a client’s trunk to get better eye contact, improved vestibular function or better alignment to enhance communication both receptively and expressively.

We use augmentive speech equipment when clients have access to these tools, enabling our clients to press a button to ask for a “walk on” or a “whoa” as well as to play favorite games while astride, or to answer “yes and no” when appropriate.

Finally, when verbal expressive language skills are not being utilized—either they are not an appropriate goal, or they are a longer-term goal—we encourage and teach basic signs which help the rider communicate his/her intent to the staff and horse. These usually span between tapping the horse, to directional cues through pointing and head movements. Often, the client’s body language is enough to communicate effectively. Many times, when the horse comes to a halt, the client begins to move his/her pelvis to recreate the new-found movement they’ve just experienced through the horse’s movement. This is usually one of our first communication connections!

And a tell-tale sign that the client is hooked!