What does hippotherapy mean anyways?

Therapy with hippos? Horseback riding? Adaptive riding?

By Jolie Law, OTS

Hippotherapy is not a standalone profession or type of therapy, nor is it typical or adaptive horseback riding. “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 to engage sensory, neuromotor and cognitive systems to achieve functional outcomes” (American Hippotherapy Association, Inc., 2019). 

Research has shown that equine movement as a treatment tool helps promote improved strength, balance, coordination, flexibility, and postural stability (Ajzenman et al., 2013; Hamill et al., 2017; Shurtleff et al., 2009). In addition, the repetitive, rhythmic, and multidimensional nature of equine movement provides sensory input that can be effective for helping individuals with autism, sensory processing disorder, ADHD, and other sensory integration challenges. Incorporating a horse into the treatment process can also be motivating for some clients and provide unique opportunities for strengthening social interaction skills in individuals with autism or who are non-verbal communicators (Sams et al., 2006). 

Using equine movement is just one component of the treatment process, licensed therapists incorporate other evidence-based treatment strategies to address each client’s individual functional outcomes. Every client’s plan of care is developed holistically using a client- and family-centered approach to help each client achieve their goals and reach their highest potentials. 

For more information on how hippotherapy is used as a treatment tool, please visit the American Hippotherapy Association’s website: https://www.americanhippotherapyassociation.org  

Here is a list of some of our favorite items we find helpful when incorporating hippotherapy as a treatment tool in our practice (as shown in the picture above!):

Disclosure: Some of the links provided in this post are Amazon affiliate links, meaning that Highest Potential Therapy, at no additional cost to you, receives a small commission if you make a purchase from that link. All product recommendations are based on our practice and represent our own independent opinion. Thank you!


Ajzenman, H. F., Standeven, J. W., & Shurtleff, T. L. (2013). Effect of hippotherapy on motor control, adaptive behaviors, and participation in children with autism spectrum disorder: A pilot study. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67, 653–663. http://dx.doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2013.008383 

American Hippotherapy Association, Inc. (2019). Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy and Speech Therapy Incorporating Hippotherapy as a Treatment Tool. https://www.americanhippotherapyassociation.org/assets/docs/Present-Use-of-HPOT-final-proposed-revision-February-2019-2.pdf

Hamill, D., Washington, K., & White, O.R. (2007). The effect of hippotherapy on postural control in sitting for children with cerebral palsy. Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, 27(4), 23-42. https://doi.org/10.1080/J006v27n04_03 

Sams, M. J., Fortney, E. V., & Willenbring, S. (2006). Occupational therapy incorporating animals for children with autism: A pilot investigation. American Occupational Therapy Association, 60, 268–274.

Shurtleff, T. L., Standeven, J. W., & Engsberg, J. R. (2009). Changes in dynamic trunk/head stability and functional reach after hippotherapy. Archives of Physical Medicine and Reha- bilitation, 90, 1185–1195. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.apmr. 2009.01.026