While hippotherapy works to improve the quality of life for children and adults with physical and mental impairments through riding a horse, just getting some patients onto the horse can be a major obstacle. But now, Baylor University researchers have built a custom mechanical horse to help those with physical and mental impairments get the same benefit from hippotherapy without having to actually get on to a horse.
"Our vision is that the mechanical horse can provide better access and can act as a complementary tool to actual therapeutic horse riding," said Dr. Brian Garner, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Baylor and a biomechanics expert. "If the patient is afraid of horses or it may not be safe for the patient to ride a horse, the mechanical horse can act as stepping stone to build the patient up to a level of stability so they can get onto a live horse."
Garner said hippotherapy is unique and valuable as a therapeutic tool because it produces three-dimensional rhythmic, repetitive movements, which preliminary research has shown simulates the movements of the human pelvis while walking. The movements promote many physical benefits like increased circulation, development of balance and improved coordination among many others. Therapeutic riding can help children and adults with various impairments or delays in development, including those with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Down syndrome and autism.
Baylor's prototype mechanical horse mimics a real horse by using a three-dimensional system. The stationary device with a moving saddle surface can move in virtually all directions in a cycling pattern, putting the body through a complex of movements just like real hippotherapy. To make sure the mechanical horse replicates as precisely as possible the movements of an actual horse, Baylor engineering students took video-motion photography of several real horses walking and used that data to create the mechanical horses' movement patterns.
Garner said the mechanical horse also can differ in speed - from a slow walking pace to a fast walking pace - and is the width of a normal horse. It can be used with or without a saddle and can simulate bare-back riding. The saddle also simulates real therapeutic riding saddles that have adjustable handle bars.
Garner and his research team will now conduct additional research using the horse, studying the biomechanics of hippotherapy.
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