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Hippotherapy versus therapeutic horseback riding

May 2011

Which one should I choose for my child?

Horseback riding is a sport that appeals to you and you have decided to initiate your child to this activity. We hope that the information provided below will help you choose the type of equestrian approach that is most suitable for you and your child and that best meets your respective objectives and needs.

A bit of history

It was in 1952 that Liz Hartel (affected by polio) became the first woman to win a medal in equestrianism at the Summer Olympics in Helsinki. This event led to the idea of rehabilitation through horseback riding. Hippotherapy principles were, however, not developed until the 1960s in Germany, and the first curriculum in North America was introduced in 1987. Today, hippotherapy is used as a treatment strategy in more than 24 countries around the world.


Hippotherapy is a treatment strategy that uses equine movement as part of a rehabilitation program to achieve functional objectives in patients with neuromusculoskeletal dysfunctions. It is practiced by physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists who have been trained in this discipline.

In the context of hippotherapy, when the patient is sitting directly on and astride the horse (with no saddle), the horse’s walking movements impart pelvis and trunk movement responses in the patient that are very similar to those of human gait. In other words, the patient is not guiding the horse. Equine movement works on posture, head and trunk movement control, postural responses, muscular strength and endurance (uninterrupted co-contractions), gait, gross motor abilities, etc. The horse’s walk can stimulate up to 5000 movements in the human body per hour! This much stimulation cannot be reproduced even by the best therapist!

Although therapeutic horseback riding may appear to be identical to hippotherapy, it remains quite different. Therapeutic horseback riding is a sport, an adapted recreational activity, and not a treatment strategy. Its objective is to develop horseback riding skills with the help of an instructor. The equestrian sits on a saddle and learns to direct the horse. This activity does not aim to achieve any functional outcomes.

In conclusion

Whichever approach you choose, remember that contact with a horse will benefit your child in so many ways on a social, educational, personal and emotional level.

Do not hesitate to contact your child’s therapists for further advice.


Annie Jacques
Marie Enfant Rehabilitation Centre

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Updated on 3/20/2015
Created on 1/16/2015
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