Researchers from the Washington University Program in Occupational Therapy, funded by a grant from the Horses & Humans Research Foundation, recently completed a year-long study on the therapeutic impact of equine therapy for children with cerebral palsy.
“Beliefs about the positive effects of hippotherapy are strongly held, but not yet fully supported by objective evidence,” reports Tim Shurtleff, occupational therapist and lead researcher. “We have shown that hippotherapy is a therapeutic tool that makes a measurable and visible difference in basic skills that form the foundation of most functional activities of everyday life.”
The study primarily involved measuring stability changes in children with cerebral palsy after 12 weeks of hippotherapy treatments. The team used a motorized barrel and video motion capture to challenge and measure the changes in motor control that might have been learned on a horse.
Molly Sweeney, President of the Horses & Humans Research Foundation, was most impressed that children actually sustained the benefits of hippotherapy for several months after their riding sessions stopped. “The subjects were incorporating improvements from hippotherapy into their daily life,” Sweeney says. “They actually maintained a continuum of measurable improvement—better head and trunk stability and improved control of their arms as they reach—even months after their hippotherapy sessions ended. That was a really exciting revelation for us!”
Shurtleff was most surprised at the magnitude of the “effect sizes,” a statistic that compares results of interventions across different types of experiments. “It is often difficult to say that statistical significance is equal to clinical significance. With effect sizes this large, the changes are visible to casual observation and likely indicative of clinical change.”
“These findings will go a long way in getting hippotherapy the recognition it deserves,” says KC Henry, Executive Director of the Horses & Humans Research Foundation. “The Washington University project is our first funded project, and has set an impressive standard, with their rigorously developed research design leading to impactful objective results. We were thrilled to have solid evidence substantiating what so many therapists already believed.”
The research team plans to follow up this study by conducting a randomized clinical trial (RCT) of hippotherapy. “A RCT is the gold standard for evidence of medical treatment efficacy. If we can pull off a successful RCT, the efficacy of hippotherapy will no longer be in question,” Shurtleff says.
Healing People on Horseback