Riding a horse can make anyone feel like they are on top of the world. A sense of power transcends from the horse to the rider, allowing the rider to feel in control. However, for individuals with cerebral palsy or spinal cord injuries, horseback riding is much more than an exciting, enjoyable or invigorating activity. It is physical therapy. Riding provides incredible physical benefits, including spine, hip and shoulder alignment that assists with balance and other motor functions. Hippotherapy, also known as equine-assisted therapy, is a developing treatment for people with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. This type of therapy enables those with motor disabilities to feelin control of their movements while being on a horse. Graduate student, Anne Marie Holter, and Dr. John DesJardins, both from the Department of Bioengineering, are investigating the benefits of hippotherapy with the Horse Play Creative Inquiry project. The team is trying to quantify the positive, physical benefits hippotherapy patients experience. “It is very important to quantitatively prove that this method of rehabilitation is useful in order for it to eventually be implemented by practicing physical therapists,” Nathan Luzum, a senior bioengineering major, said. In order to do this, the students attach angle sensors to a rider’s hips or spine to monitor angular displacement, and electromyography (EMG) sensors to the leg and back muscles. The angle and EMG sensors measure joint movement and muscle responses of the person during the ride, which provides data on how the movement of a horse affects the movement of a rider. The team collects data from experienced and novice riders to determine how the movement of the horse can stimulate different muscle movements in different riders. Although the project is in the exploratory phases, analysis of the movements will be instrumental in quantifying the effects of hippotherapy.However, it is not all data and analysis for this Creative Inquiry project. When they are not analyzing sensor data, they can be found at the Clemson Equine Center with students in the ClemsonLIFE program, a program that provides students with intellectual disabilities with a postsecondary experience. The team helps the ClemsonLIFE students groom, tack and mount horses during riding sessions. For Holter and the Creative Inquiry students, getting out of the quantitative mindset and into the stables is an important part of their research. It makes the work relevant—seeing the benefits of horseback riding in person. This approach is helpful in such a new field. “We can take this research wherever we want to go because there are not any standards out there. We would be creating the standards,” Holter said. The results of the team’s research will hopefully assist in clarifying any misunderstanding regarding the benefits of hippotherapy. The team ultimately wants their work to break the barriers and make hippotherapy a more accessible therapy. Treatment misconceptions are not the only obstacle. Stables equipped with the proper facilities for therapy and with horses that are trained are hard to find. “There is always room for improvement, room to quantify things and give [this therapy] that scientific merit that it deserves as so many other forms of rehabilitation therapy have,” Holter said. The Horse Play Creative Inquiry project is paving the way for more widespread use of hippotherapy by gathering evidence to support the validity of the treatment.
Decipher Magazine is produced by a team of Clemson undergraduate students to highlight the accomplishments of their peers in Creative Inquiry—Clemson’s unique brand of Undergraduate Research.