A Grand Valley State University professor is using an emerging speech-language therapy technique to help her patients improve their speech. She's using horses.

Beth Macauley, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, has been studying and using hippotherapy for nearly 30 years. Hippotherapy is the use of horseback riding for therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment.

Macauley has used the treatment on patients as young as 2 years old as well as elderly patients who have experienced strokes. She is one of four speech-language pathologists in the U.S. with board certification in hippotherapy.

Macauley said three-dimensional movements — up-down, side-side, front-back — of a horse pelvis are very similar to that of a human pelvis.

“When a person with a disability is on a horse, the horse’s nervous system becomes a framework for that person. Instead of going into a room and using books and cards for speech therapy, you’re now doing those same activities on a horse and the horse's movement facilitates improved neurological function,” she said.

The exercises Macauley uses depend on each patient’s goals. Macauley works with a woman who had a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. The goals were to establish muscle patterns and practice speaking and sustaining vowels. Before the woman got on the horse, her volume was low and she had poor trunk support. At the end of the therapy session, her speech was clearer and more articulate.

“We don’t quite understand how it works yet,” Macauley said, “but we have a theory: the consistent and repetitive motion of a horse walking or trotting stimulates the nervous system of the person on the horse and facilitates increased physical and cognitive function. Since the nervous system is given a coordinated, integrated framework from which to function, it can focus on bigger, more complex thoughts, words and movements.”

In the future, Macauley hopes to lead a study that focuses on the activity of a patient’s brain during hippotherapy. She also hopes the therapy technique will eventually be covered by insurance companies.

Hippotherapy started as a physical therapy treatment for children with cerebral palsy, then it was used for adults with polio and brain injuries. Over the years, the technique expanded from helping to improve physical conditions to improving speech and language.

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