young child on horse reachingHippotherapy and Therapeutic Riding


At age 13, Jake is already an experienced and highly skilled equestrian from Barrington, Illinois. Jake is a hard worker and a very motivated young man. In fact, Jake has had to work harder than most children because he was born with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD poses significant challenges to learning.



Starting at the age of six, Jake was introduced to horses in a hippotherapy program. Hippo is a Greek word meaning horse, plus the word therapy, thus therapy with the help of a horse.

A horse's pelvis has the same three-dimensional movement of a human pelvis. That serves to mimic the human gait and provide repetitive, rhythmic, sensory input to the rider. Hippotherapy is used to teach children and adults affected by a physical and/or psychological disability. A horse's four-beat walk and two-beat trot is its own language. A horse can also have a calming affect on its rider because of its large, kind eyes and gentle demeanor.

Hippotherapy is only implemented by a certified speech-language pathologist, or certified occupational or physical therapist. 


Therapeutic Riding

Jake eventually graduated from hippotherapy and continued riding in a therapeutic riding program. The very first thing Jake learned was how to establish and tolerate eye-contact. That opened the arena gates to so much more. From there, Jake could start imitating and learn how to read.

Jake gradually became comfortable and balanced, as he learned through relationships he built with the horses (favorites Jet, Rowdy, and Miss CC Mariah), his horse leader and several side-walkers and volunteers. Therapeutic riding places the rider in a non-threatening situation where the rider sits higher than everyone else, an empowering position for learning.

Literally anything can be taught through a therapy horse, from concepts of time, language skills, concepts, and prepositions. For example, Jake learned how to trot around a barrel, under the barn door, and over a pole.

Jake first learned lessons in posture and social interaction. Gradually lessons for spelling and language usage were incorporated. Signs were posted with answers on them and Jake had to ride over to the correct sign. Like many of us, Jake is not fond of math, though he was more motivated to learn on one of his favorite horses. He responded well to a horse; he bonded with it, and loved its intense movements and sounds!

Jake's mom, Stacie, let staff know about any area of life Jake was having trouble with, and the team went to work on it. Everything learned in therapeutic riding, of course, helps at home and school too. Every eight weeks progress meetings were held to keep Jake's family aware of progress.

"Now I know I'm a winner!"

The goal is independence. Gradually, as Jake mastered each aspect of riding from handling the reins properly to specific movements, the number of side-walkers was reduced. Then Jake rode just with his horse leader, and eventually graduated from the therapeutic riding program

Jake moved on to dressage and trail classes. Jake also competed in the Special Olympics, Equestrian Division. He won a gold medal and told his parents, "now I know I'm a winner!" He told the little girl who won the silver medal, "now you know you're a winner too!" Clearly, this is a boy who is happy for others when they succeed, not just himself, and that's the mark of a truly successful person! Jake continued to take regular, mainstream riding lessons weekly.


Horse Selection

As a therapeutic riding instructor, the most challenging part of the trainer's job is finding a good therapy horse. A good, medium-sized, even tempered horse is hard to come by because there is so much criteria to meet: For example, a therapy horse has to have the patience and tolerance to hold steady for long periods of time, while a child is being transferred off of a wheelchair ramp. A therapy horse must also have good health and proper training.

For more information on hippotherapy and therapeutic horsemanship, please see the Play section - Outdoor Recreation - Equine Assisted by clicking this link.