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Equine-Assisted Therapies for Children with Cerebral Palsy

June 7, 2022

Blog: Family Connections with Pediatrics

Over the last couple of decades, animals, such as horses for equine-assisted therapy (also known as horse-related therapy), have been increasingly used for therapies with children with disabilities. There are all types of equine-assisted therapies to help children with things like movement, mental health, or well-being. In this month’s Pediatrics, a pair of German authors set out to study (10.1542/peds.2021-055229) the effect of equine-assisted therapies on motor function (how a body moves, posture, and balance) and quality of life (such as physical, social, and emotional well-being) in children with cerebral palsy (CP).

What types of equine-assisted therapy did the article review?

The article grouped equine-assisted therapy into 3 types:

  • Therapeutic riding: uses riding skills to help with all aspects of a child’s well-being, for example stretching to mount the horse, balance in riding, and developing a relationship with the horse
  • Hippotherapy: a form of physical, occupational, and speech therapy in which a therapist uses the movements of a horse to provide carefully graded motor and sensory input
  • Artificial horse-based therapies: use the movement of a mechanical horse, for example, to work on balance

How were results of equine-assisted therapy measured?

A lot of different ways! The authors set out to look at how therapy affected two things: motor function and quality of life. While they found a large number of studies looking at effects of equine therapy, most did not use the same tool. None looked at both motor function and quality of life.

The articles reviewed by the authors used tools such as:

  • Gross Motor Function Measure
  • Sitting assessment score
  • Pediatric balance scale
  • Pediatric Evaluation of Disability Inventory
  • Child health questionnaire
  • The Cerebral Palsy Quality of Life for Children

Each tool looks at different aspects of motor function and quality of life. For example, the effects of equine-assisted therapy that some tools looked at in more detail included: sitting, lying, or standing, crawling or walking, social well-being, and emotional well-being

What results did the authors find?

With such variety in the type of tool used and the focus of each study, it has been hard to connect the results. In this paper, the authors were able to connect and compare results to find strong evidence of the positive effects of equine-assisted therapies, especially hippotherapy, on global gross motor function. They also found that such therapies are a helpful therapeutic tool for children with CP who are about to learn walking or already have achieved the ability to walk.

How can you use this article?

  1. If you are not familiar with horse-related therapies, or they have been suggested for your child but you have not yet started, read through this article. It is dense, but the results share good information about how these therapies can positively affect motor function.
  2. If you think any of these therapies might help your child with CP or disabilities, talk with your child’s doctor about options. Equine-assisted therapies are not typically covered by insurance or Medicaid, so be sure to ask up front about that. Some foundations may provide scholarships or payment assistance.
  • If you want to learn more about hippotherapy, start HERE
  • A simple internet search of ‘equine-assisted therapy for children near me’ will lead to links for programs in your area
  • Connect with your state’s family-to-family health information center for information about programs in your community
  1. If your child receives horse-related therapies, share the article with the providers. Data like this is important to make sure equine-assisted therapy programs continue. Ask questions to learn more and become an advocate.
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