Hippotherapy is a strategy designed to use the movements of a horse to treat patients with cerebral palsy and other neuromusculoskeletal disabilities. Patients are asked to ride a horse while under the direction of a licensed therapist. The movement of the horse drives the patient’s body, in particular the hips, in a way that is similar to human movements that naturally occur when they run. This rhythmic motion challenges the patient to try and anticipate and adapt to the movements of the horse in order to maintain their balance. The therapy is believed to help improve patients’ strength, flexibility, balance, muscle symmetry, posture and motor functions.
Use of hippotherapy was first described by Hippocrates in ancient Greece when he wrote a chapter on “natural exercise” and mentions horse riding. In 1952, Liz Hartel won a silver medal in equestrian sports at the Helsinki Olympics, explaining that horse riding had helped her recover from the effects of polio. Later, therapeutic riding centers opened throughout Europe in the 1960s and by the 1990s the practice had become so well-known that the American Hippotherapy Association was formed in the US.
Even though hippotherapy appears to help both children and adults with physical and mental disabilities, researchers say that getting patients to physically get onto a horse has been a major obstacle. Now, research scientists at Baylor University have constructed a mechanical horse for patients who are either afraid of riding a live horse or for those whom it might not be safe.
Baylor’s mechanical horse mimics the actions of a real horse by using a 3-D system with a saddle surface that moves in all directions in a cycling pattern. Engineering students at the school designed the device by studying the movements of an actual horse with video-motion photography. Additional research is planned by the research team to further study the biomechanics of hippotherapy with their new mechanical horse.