Equine Facilitated Therapy (EFT) is a name given to three related methods: Hippotherapy, Therapeutic Riding, and Animal-Assisted Therapy. EFT can improve attention, memory, cognition, language, and learning.
“Hippotherapy” comes from the Greek root word for horse, hippo. It is a therapeutic method that uses the movement of the horse to facilitate learning. Traditionally HT has been used for people, particularly children, with physical handicaps; however, it has long been known to help activate language learning. A centering foundation can be established that can improve clients’ neurological function and sensory processing. This approach uses the movement of the horse in combination with the treatment methods and goals of the therapist’s particular profession, e.g., educational therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, psychologist. During a HT session, the client receives therapy from a licensed professional for specific goals established after the assessment. The movement of the horse can provide stimulation to the whole body, including the nervous system. This allows the client to integrate and a process language in a whole new way and often encourages progress in learning that cannot be achieved through any other method.
THERAPEUTIC RIDING (TR)
Therapeutic Riding is not considered to be a treatment because during a TR session, a riding instructor is only teaching the principles of riding. However, TR does provide therapeutic benefits when consultants in speech pathology, educational therapy, and other disciplines provide feedback to the trained instructor. The emotional therapeutic benefits from animals, specifically horses, have long been known. Bonding with animals, learning to ride from a qualified trainer and using new physical skills can have positive effects.
ANIMAL-ASSISTED THERAPY (AAT)
Animal Assisted Therapy has traditionally been used in nursing homes with dogs, cats, and even hamsters. It is a treatment tool used by a therapist. As in HT, clients can benefit from the stimulation of their horse. However, unlike in HT clients usually are not mounted. Instead they may be directed to goals using the horse. Goals are based upon a prior assessment.
ONE TYPICAL SESSION OF HIPPOTHERAPY
John, age 6, came to me with previously established goals in speech and educational therapy. During the first session the trainer and I met with mother and established goals using our “goals” grid. This grid combines riding skills and language learning objectives in a checklist format, and maps out our goals for the client based on the assessed areas of concern.
The trainer, a credentialed teacher, instructed John on grooming and walking the pony to the arena, making sure that he was performing correctly. In the arena, the trainer instructed John on mounting, leg position, and other aspects of horsemanship. While the trainer walked him on a lead line, making sure his legs, seat, and hands, were correct by physically moving them or giving him verbal instructions, I had John count slowly to 10 while looking at me. This facilitated his attention and gaze, two of the established goals. Next, John was asked to identify the letters placed around the arena, then say the phonic sound for each. This session lasted about one hour.
Although a useful tool, HT should be combined with other methods. Clients considered for Animal Assisted Therapy must be assessed to warrant application of these methods. Professionals must be knowledgeable and trained. Positive emotional benefits can be possible from work with horses and other animals, though they are not necessarily therapeutic.
Carol Murphy, MA, CCC-SLP, is a licensed speech/language pathologist and board certified educational therapist. She was trained at the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy. Her business, Speech and Learning and Psychology Services, is located in Santa Cruz County for 23 years, with a division called Animal T.A.L.K., that uses horses for Equine Facilitated Therapy. Currently she is serving on the CA State Speech-Language Pathology, Audiology and Hearing Aid Disperser’s Licensing Board and supervises graduate Speech-Language Pathologists for California State University Northridge in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. Carol can be reached by phoning 831.234.4181, or email her at email@example.com.
A protocol for assessing Equine Facilitated Therapy riding ability and appropriate levels has been developed.