Horses providing new therapy practices at Storm Harbor


storm harbor equestrian center

Mallory Reynolds, a recreational therapy major from Conneaut Lake, prepares to groom Liver at Slippery Rock University’s Storm Harbor Equestrian Center. Liver is being utilized as part of a new hippotherapy program for clients with disabilities.

June 6, 2016

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Dating back to ancient Greece, horses have long been utilized as a therapeutic aid. In fact, the Greek physician Hippocrates - known as the "Father of Western Medicine" - discussed the therapeutic value of riding in his writings.

Roughly 2,000 years later, the benefits of therapeutic riding began appearing in 17th century literature when it was prescribed as a remedy for neurological disorders, gout and poor morale.

Now, hippotherapy has made its way to Slippery Rock University's Storm Harbor Equestrian Center courtesy of Whitney Angelini, an instructor of parks and recreation and licensed physical therapist.

Hippotherapy means "treatment with the help of the horse" from the Greek word "hippos," meaning horse.

A form of physical, occupational or speech therapy, hippotherapy is one in which the movement of the horse influences the client. The therapist directs the movement of the horse, analyzes the client's responses and adjusts the treatment accordingly. This strategy is used as part of an integrated treatment program to achieve functional outcomes including improved flexibility, posture, balance and mobility in those clients suffering from neuromusculoskeletal dysfunctions.

Angelini said the timing is right for hippotherapy because it offers an additional and drug-free treatment method for a number of disorders including: autism, cerebral palsy, developmental delay, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, paralysis, spinal bifida and traumatic brain injuries.

Modern-day hippotherapy concepts developed from earlier principles that were first practiced in 1960s Europe. That model formed the basis of the first curriculum established for hippotherapy in the U.S. in 1987.

Hippotherapy differs from therapeutic horseback riding in that the work is one-on-one and the client atop the horse does not direct the horse; rather, licensed health professionals such as physical or occupational therapists, or speech-language pathologists, guide the client's posture and actions while the horse is controlled by assistants at the direction of the therapist. The therapist guides both the client and horse to encourage specific motor and sensory inputs.

"Clients can participate beginning as early as age 2," said Angelini. "It is best suited for individuals with gait abnormalities, balance deficits, abnormal muscle tone, poor coordination, postural control, sensory motor function, arousal and or attention skills."

While SRU has offered adaptive riding at Storm Harbor for more than 10 years, hippotherapy differs in that it does not focus on teaching riding skills.

"Riding skills are not taught with equine assisted therapies, but rather the movement of the horse is used as the treatment method," Angelini said. "A client would continue to be treated using hippotherapy until his or her therapy goals were achieved, as determined based off of functional deficits observed at the client's initial evaluation.

"Since Storm Harbor opened its doors in 2005, adaptive riding has been its primary focus. With the addition of equine-assisted therapies, (Storm Harbor) can attract an entirely new population. Being able to offer this type of therapy has been on the radar for years and it's exciting that it's now a reality."

Whitney Angelini


According to Angelini, when guided by a trained therapist, equine movement provides a base of support with symmetrical, variable, rhythmic and repetitive multidimensional movement, mimicking the human pelvis when walking.

"As the therapist directs the horse's movement, active responses from the client are promoted with positive carry-over into daily function," she said.

Horses are led through each session using a handling method known as "long lining." The animal's handler uses two long lines to work the horse in a riding arena, or outdoors, to simulate the cues given through the reins. As the horse's movement is vital to the therapy, the handler must be able to get the horse to move as the therapist requests.

Providing hippotherapy at Storm Harbor continues Angelini's long association with the equestrian center. A 2011 SRU graduate with a degree in exercise science, she logged hours as a student worker, adaptive riding instructor and graduate assistant before earning a doctoral degree in physical therapy from the University in 2014.

"Being able to provide this type of service at this University and through Storm Harbor is a dream come true for me," said Angelini. "This has been my calling since high school and its all been possible because of SRU."

Storm Harbor opened 11 years ago as a student-educational facility offering day programs to local community agencies, schools and youth programs for children and adults with disabilities.

For more information about hippotherapy services, contact: Angelini at

MEDIA CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine | 724.738.4854 |