Horses are majestic animals, but they can be dangerous, too. A sudden rearing up or abrupt stop can send a rider flying, with disastrous consequences. Most infamously, actor Christopher Reeve, who played Superman in the movies, was paralyzed after being thrown from a horse. He spent the remainder of his life in a wheelchair and never walked again.
Yet just as horses can cause paralyzing injuries, they can also help people learn to walk again through a form of physical rehabilitation called hippotherapy.
Hippotherapy, derived from the Greek word hippo, meaning horse, is based on the fact that the way your body moves when you sit on a moving horse is kind of like walking. As the horse walks or trots, the movement of your legs and pelvis reminds your body of what it feels like to walk. Over time, the body can re-learn the movements necessary to maintain balance and become mobile.
Hippotherapy isn't a sure fire cure for paralysis, of course. But therapists have found that when combined with other treatments, it's pretty effective in helping people with impaired balance, coordination, movement, and gross motor skills like sitting, standing, and walking. One of the reasons it seems to work is that a horse can be made to walk at various speeds, depending on how much stimulation a patient needs. Plus, it's fun and pleasant for people who are normally wheelchair-bound to be outside and around animals.