menu toggle icon
Find Care:
Speech Therapy
Occupational Therapy
Physical Therapy
Read Expert Guides
Equine therapy vs hippotherapy: Understanding the difference

Hippotherapy vs equine therapy: Understanding the difference

Updated: August 1, 2023 · 5 Minute Read

Randi Shannahan, DPT, Therapy Services Manager at The Shea Center for Therapeutic Riding

Reviewed by:

Randi Shannahan, DPT, The Shea Center for Therapeutic Riding's Therapy Services Manager


  • Equine-assisted therapy is a term that refers to any therapy involving horses. Hippotherapy is a type of equine-assisted therapy.
  • Hippotherapy is a great intervention option for people with cerebral palsy, autism, down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and more.
  • Hippotherapy is often used in treatment to improve a person’s balance, coordination, muscle tone, and sensory processing.

Hippotherapy vs equine therapy: what's the difference? These terms are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same!



Let’s start with equine therapy

Equine-assisted therapy, previously known as equine therapy, is a term used to describe any kind of therapy involving horses. That means that hippotherapy is a form of equine-assisted therapy, but equine-assisted therapy is not always hippotherapy.


Common forms of equine-assisted services include:

  • Adaptive Riding (sometimes referred to as Therapeutic Riding): A recreational activity that uses specially trained horses and staff. Your child will ride and care for horses which can help improve their endurance, dexterity, and self-confidence.
  • Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP): EAP, also known as equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP), usually involves working with horses without riding them. A licensed mental healthcare provider will partner with an equine professional to help your child work towards their therapy goals. EAP activities may include grooming, leading, and other interactions with the horse.
  • Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL): EAL is a non-therapy service used to promote the development of life skills. It is provided by a specially trained equine professional. During an EAL session, your child may groom and care for the horse, lead the horse through obstacle courses, and spend time with the horse.
  • Hippotherapy: Combines the methods of occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy with horses. Hippotherapy uses the movement of the horse to improve the rider’s motor skills, balance, and coordination.


Now let’s take a closer look at hippotherapy

The term “hippotherapy” originates from the Greek words “hippos” for horse and “therapeia” for healing or therapy.


As we mentioned, hippotherapy is a type of equine-assisted therapy. A therapist uses the horse’s movement to improve the rider’s balance, coordination, muscle tone, and sensory processing. The horse’s movement simulates walking and can help improve your child’s mobility and physical function.


What does a session of hippotherapy look like?

Hippotherapy sessions are typically conducted in a controlled environment. The therapist will direct the horse’s movement and pace. By making adjustments to the horse’s pace and direction, the therapist can better target your child’s specific goals.


During a session, your child will ride the horse while the therapist guides your child through different activities and exercises.


Sessions typically last 30–60 minutes and are usually held once a week. But, the actual length and frequency of sessions will depend on your child’s specific needs and goals.


Will my insurance pay for hippotherapy?

Insurance coverage for hippotherapy can vary depending on your provider, your plan, and the state you live in. Some insurance plans may cover hippotherapy as a form of physical, occupational), or speech therapy, while others may not. Also, insurance companies may need a referral and a medical diagnosis to approve coverage.


We recommend you check with your insurance provider to determine whether or not PT, OT, or SLP utilizing hippotherapy is covered under your plan.


If hippotherapy is not covered by your insurance, there may be other financial assistance options. Therapy centers may offer grants or sliding scale fees. Be sure to check with the therapy providers you are considering for more information.


Who should consider hippotherapy?

Hippotherapy is commonly used to help individuals with:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Autism
  • Down syndrome
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • and more!


Hippotherapy is a great intervention option because it can be customized to meet the specific needs of each person.


To sum it all up…

Hippotherapy is a form of equine-assisted therapy. Equine-assisted services as an industry provide great activity options that involve interactions with horses to promote physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being.


Choosing the right equine-assisted therapy for your child depends on your child’s specific goals and needs. We recommend you talk with a healthcare professional who can help you make an informed decision.


Check out our complete guide on equine therapy for more information.

Dive Deeper

Article References

  1. AHA, Inc. Terminology for Healthcare. American Hippotherapy Association, Inc.
  2. Wood, W., Alm, K., et al. Optimal Terminology for Services in the United States That Incorporate Horses to Benefit People: A Consensus Document. The Journal of Alternative and Complmentary Medicine. November 1, 2021. Vol. 27(1): 88-95.
  3. Summary: Optimal Terminology for Services that Incoproate Horses to Benefit People.