Equine Assisted Occupational Therapy

Hippotherapy is defined as the use of the movement of a horse as a treatment strategy in the context of occupational, physical or speech/language therapy. Timothy Shurtleff, OTD, OTR/L, an instructor in occupational therapy and neurosurgery in the Program of Occupational Therapy, became involved in equine assisted occupational therapy nearly 20 years ago through his wife, Charla.

“Charla sold her horse when we were first married and in school. We ended up buying him back eight years later and we’ve had horses ever since. She developed an interest in therapeutic riding, became a certified instructor, started volunteering and decided we needed a center in our county,” Shurtleff says.

Charla formed Exceptional Equestrians of the Meramec Valley, Inc. (EEMV) in March 1991 in response to a local need she saw for affordable equine therapy and recreation for people of all ages. In 1993, EEMV became a satellite program of Therapeutic Horsemanship in St. Charles, Mo., before moving to a leased location in Washington, Mo., in 1995.

It became an independent 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization in 1995. It changed its name to Exceptional Equestrians of the Missouri Valley, Inc. in 2006 in order to more easily communicate with riders from a large service area. Three years ago, EEMV bought a 30-acre site in Washington, Mo., where it now operates.

“During that time, I ran a consulting business and never planned to be an instructor, let alone an occupational therapist, but I got hooked,” Shurtleff says. “In 1996, I became a certified therapeutic riding instructor and started volunteering one day a week. I met Sandy Rafferty, MA, OTR/L, co-founder of Therapeutic Horsemanship, and participated in her hippotherapy program. The therapists would ask me to make equipment modifications for the clients, which I enjoyed doing. They told me I should become an occupational therapist because I thought like one. Ultimately, I decided that was a good idea.”

While pursuing his doctoral degree, Shurtleff took a neuroscience class that changed the way he looked at his past experiences with clients. “I realized there was a theory behind what I had observed in the children I’d been working with that explained why their movement was changing the way it was. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough evidence to support it from an insurance funding standpoint. I felt it should be funded because these children were receiving therapy so I changed my focus to research.

In the Program’s Human Performance Laboratory, Shurtleff’s research focuses on the efficacy of hippotherapy as a treatment strategy for people with neuromuscular and neurobehavioral disabilities. Recently, Shurtleff worked with Program Director Carolyn Baum, PhD, OTR, FAOTA, to develop and offer a clinical practice opportunity to Program students at the EEMV facility, which eventually will lead to a new initiative for the Program’s Community Practice.

“They (EEMV) currently have therapeutic riding instructors to provide adaptive riding lessons, but it’s not therapy. We proposed using their facility, but having our licensed therapists oversee the sessions and treatments,” Shurtleff says. “The long-range goal is for them to become independent and have a licensed therapist, possibly a Program alum, on staff one day.”

The students currently in the clinical track are benefiting not only from Shurtleff’s instruction and experience, but also from the lessons the horses themselves are teaching.

“The horses must move rhythmically and symmetrically so the movement is imparted to the child that way,” Shurtleff says. “The benefit of hippotherapy is the children are willing to do all kinds of therapeutic activities that they normally wouldn’t do in a typical clinical setting. We work with children who have physical and psycho-social needs, and children with neurobehavioral disabilities, such as ADHD or autism, all which respond to this type of treatment.”

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