By Sterling Medical Staff
When people think of speech language pathology, they typically envision a sterile office environment where patients recite drill-like speech patterns. However, the increasing prevalence of a technique known as hippotherapy ought to change some conceptions of what speech language pathology entails.
Hippotherapy, or equine-assisted therapy, is a physical, occupational, and speech-language therapy treatment strategy that utilizes the movement of a horse. While riding on a horse may not appear to have anything to do with speech therapy, the spectrum of benefits provided by hippotherapy is wide-ranging.
According to the American Hippotherapy Association, the multidimensional movement provided by a horse is variable, rhythmic, and repetitive, which produces a calming effect on riders. This in turn facilitates neurophysiologic systems that support all of our functional daily living skills.1 A trained therapist or handler can adjust the horse’s gait, enabling them to control the degree of sensory input to the patient.
There is a growing trend in speech and language intervention toward developing naturalistic approaches to add to or replace the traditional, more drill-like methods traditionally utilized in speech-language therapy. Hippotherapy may be a viable option, as it offers a unique alternative for clients who languish in more conventional settings.2
Rachel Gerhart is one such proponent of hippotherapy for speech-language treatment. Her company, Pony Talk Speech Therapy, has operated in Reading, PA since 2010. Gerhart specializes in working with children age 10 and under, and uses horseback games to draw out their communication skills. Gerhart affirms that “being on the horse is a distraction, but a good one….A lot of them really don’t think they’re doing therapy.”3
Her clients notice the difference in their children’s progress as well. Joseph Geloso was four years old when he began hippotherapy with Gerhart, and since then his mother has noted significant improvement. “He was a little hesitant,” Nicole Geloso recalls, “but once he got on [the horse’s] back, he was a different kid.” During his 30 minute sessions Joseph, who is diagnosed with Down syndrome, moves from near-gibberish to intelligible speech to complete the games Gerhart creates.
Speech-language pathology is a diverse and expansive field of treatment, with much to offer those suffering from vocal impediments. The successful implementation of hippotherapy is just another sign of the field’s innovative expansion.