Hippotherapy. Does that summon visions of hippopotami in tutus tiptoeing to the music of Dance of the Hours from Disney’s Fantasia? Or am I merely dating myself?

Hippotherapy, of course, has nothing to do with hippopotami in tutus. The words share a root, hippo, Greek for horse. A hippopotamus is a river horse.

Horses as therapy: Hippotherapy

Remember Mr. Ed the talking horse? I continue to date myself, don’t I? What would Wilbur have done without him? He was his confidant, and best friend, who nevertheless got him into trouble on occasion. Who has a dry eye reading the book or watching the film, My Friend Flicka? The horse heals the boy, and the boy returns the favor, nearly dying to save the horse.

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The horse is a mirror to the human condition.

I had a horse when I was a kid. His name was Big Red. He responded to me, and my sisters, individually, the three of us who enjoyed horseback riding. He knew what behaviors made us uncomfortable when we climbed onto his back. With me he would toss his head back over and over. He knew that frustrated me. I have many regrets about that horse. I love animals, maybe more than humans. But, as a kid I knew nothing about horses. My father, who was the domineering sort, taught us how to saddle and bridle Big Red. It wasn’t pretty. Knee him in the stomach, he told us, to cinch the saddle around his belly. The knee caused him to suck it in.

No wonder the poor horse didn’t want us on his back, even as lightweight kids. We weren’t very nice to him, even though we loved him. We were told he was a big dumb animal, and to treat him as such.

As I matured and spent more time around animals I realized, of course, this was not at all true. I think about Big Red sometimes, and wish I had it to do over again. All any animal requires is affection, and they return it a hundredfold.

Fran Judd is a physical therapist who started Renaissance Healing and Learning Center to help in the easing of the physical challenges of autism, stroke, and a host of special needs.

Under her tutelage a teenage boy with autism who doesn’t normally touch things with ease, after a couple of sessions, touches a horse’s back. The contact triggers something in him, and he becomes more aware of his surroundings. For the first time he walks unguided.

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A woman who walked with a limp, and right side weakness, after a stroke sits on a horse and allows her body to move with the animal, and some of what was lost is restored.

Special needs kids have been shown to benefit greatly, both physically and emotionally from contact with these well-trained gentle giants. The rhythmic motion, similar to the human walk, strengthens the natural motion of the pelvis; the interaction between student and horse fosters self-confidence and trust.

Full House Farm, here in my hippie town, talks of a Spacious Intimacy with horses. Maybe a little touchy-feely, but if you watch the two-minute video on the website the convoluted language translates to a beautiful ballet of how attuned horses are to our demeanors.

Have you seen the very moving documentary, Buck? A horseman from Wyoming, Buck overcame an abusive childhood partly by finding refuge in horses. He dispels the ridiculous notion that horses are big, dumb animals. He is the Horse Whisperer extraordinaire. Robert Redford modeled his character in that film after Buck. Over the course of the documentary we learn about the sensitivity of the horse, how they mirror our emotions, how they exhibit an unconditional affection for the affection shown to them.

Buck (film)

Buck (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I highly recommend the film even if you have no particular affinity toward horses. Buck himself will win you over. An appreciation of horse flesh is the bonus.

How do you feel about horses? Have you spent any time around them?