We love horsing around! Maci’s adventure with hippotherapy & therapeutic riding

Therapeutic horseback riding, sometimes called hippotherapy, has been on my bucket list to try with Maci for many years.  Over the years, several people have shared their success stories about it and even our pediatrician recommended we give it a try.    

So, when a friend mentioned she was attending an open house for a local therapeutic riding center it seemed like the perfect opportunity to tag along and find out if this might truly be something to consider for Maci. 


“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 as a therapy tool to engage sensory, neuromotor and cognitive systems to promote functional outcomes.” – American Hippotherapy Association


From the start, I learned some amazing information. Did you know that, according to the American Hippotherapy Association:

  • The average horse walks at a rate of approximately 100 steps per minute. 
  • After just 5 minutes riding on a walking horse the patient receives 500 neuromotor inputs. 
  • A typical therapy session provides 15 to 25 minutes of equine movement which represents 1500 to 2500 neuromotor inputs. 

Why is this important? The association goes on to say that “incorporating hippotherapy into an occupational therapy, physical therapy or speech language pathology session can serve as a powerful tool for the facilitation of the key neuromotor systems that support function. When skillfully applied, equine movement under the direction of a therapist, can offer the patient the opportunity for complex motor learning.” 

In fact, utilizing equine movement has been shown to improve human strength, motor movement and sensory processing used that is used for walking, talking and fine motor skills; everything from improving activities of daily living to general attention to tasks. I had no idea of the strong correlation and incredible benefits of human/equine interaction – it’s truly incredible.

As I watched the therapy demonstration, the emotional connection of the horse with the patient was very evident and made the benefits of the therapy strikingly obvious. I was particularly struck by one rider. This man began equine therapy more than 20 years ago at the age of 7. I was inspired and encouraged by his confidence and pride in his abilities. He clearly reveled in how far he has come and has accomplished. 

Maci has long struggled in the areas of endurance, core strength, motor planning, sensory processing, attention, gross and fine motor skills, body awareness and overall independent living. She receives speech therapy, occupational and physical therapy during her day at school, but with what I had seen, I felt this was our time to give Hippotherapy a shot to see if Maci could reap the additional benefits this therapy has provided for others.

We signed her up for two days a week receiving 30 minutes of hippotherapy treatment and 15 minutes of clinic session. The goal is to provide her with rhythmic proprioceptive, vestibular and tactile input from the horse in order to support regulation and attention.  The symmetrical movement that the horse provides will challenge Maci to stay in the middle of a dynamic base of support by requiring engagement of her core muscles to stay upright and attend to her body in space. Activities on and off this dynamic base of support will be used to improve her core strength, coordination and executive functioning. As an added benefit, the environment of the training area offers a variety of natural sights, smells and sounds all of which can help support her sensory processing needs.

Maci has only had a few hippotherapy sessions and already she has really benefitted from it. And, beyond that she really loves it, enjoys the experience and is always eager to get on that horse! I’m constantly amazed at the significant amount of strength and concentration this therapy requires. It’s moving to see her in this thrive in this environment, as I generally find her to be very relaxed, preferring to have body input like hugs, pressure by holding hands and soothing music in the car going back to school as opposed to more intensity and stimuli. And, our chiropractor also mentioned in our last session he felt she had gained more muscle tone. Super exciting and encouraging! 

In fact, utilizing equine movement has been shown to improve human strength, motor movement and sensory processing used that is used for walking, talking and fine motor skills; everything from improving activities of daily living to general attention to tasks. I had no idea of the strong correlation and incredible benefits of human/equine interaction – it’s truly incredible.

As I watched the therapy demonstration, the emotional connection of the horse with the patient was very evident and made the benefits of the therapy strikingly obvious. I was particularly struck by one rider. This man began equine therapy more than 20 years ago at the age of 7. I was inspired and encouraged by his confidence and pride in his abilities. He clearly reveled in how far he has come and has accomplished. 

Maci has long struggled in the areas of endurance, core strength, motor planning, sensory processing, attention, gross and fine motor skills, body awareness and overall independent living. She receives speech therapy, occupational and physical therapy during her day at school, but with what I had seen, I felt this was our time to give Hippotherapy a shot to see if Maci could reap the additional benefits this therapy has provided for others.

We signed her up for two days a week receiving 30 minutes of hippotherapy treatment and 15 minutes of clinic session. The goal is to provide her with rhythmic proprioceptive, vestibular and tactile input from the horse in order to support regulation and attention.  The symmetrical movement that the horse provides will challenge Maci to stay in the middle of a dynamic base of support by requiring engagement of her core muscles to stay upright and attend to her body in space. Activities on and off this dynamic base of support will be used to improve her core strength, coordination and executive functioning. As an added benefit, the environment of the training area offers a variety of natural sights, smells and sounds all of which can help support her sensory processing needs.

Maci has only had a few hippotherapy sessions and already she has really benefitted from it. And, beyond that she really loves it, enjoys the experience and is always eager to get on that horse! I’m constantly amazed at the significant amount of strength and concentration this therapy requires. It’s moving to see her in this thrive in this environment, as I generally find her to be very relaxed, preferring to have body input like hugs, pressure by holding hands and soothing music in the car going back to school as opposed to more intensity and stimuli. And, our chiropractor also mentioned in our last session he felt she had gained more muscle tone. Super exciting and encouraging! 

One item of note: our riding center does not bill directly to our insurance so I pay for the sessions each time and get a super bill I submit, a little inconvenient but worth it. 

There are many good hippotherapy programs available throughout the country. If you are interested, I’d advise to ask your doctor or other therapists for recommendations. And, you might be prepared to wait. The facility we attend is very busy and it’s hard to get appointments. In fact, finding times is so challenging, but the benefits and enjoyment are so profound, that we even pull Maci out of school to attend her equine therapy sessions!

Have you tried hippotherapy with your loved ones with ASD? I’d love to hear about your experiences! Please share them with me.


Marikay Cuthill is mother of Maci, a vibrant, curious 13-year-old on the Autism Spectrum, and the founder of Maci And Pebble, a community dedicated to helping people navigate autism by finding answers, direction and peace of mind. Learn more at www.maciandpebble.com


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