The Shea Center offers classes that focus on a broad range and combination of disabilities. These classes fall under the general term "therapeutic riding" but each class is a sophisticated program developed to address the needs of that small group.

For example, physical rehabilitation classes are aimed at riders with impairments affecting muscles, bones and nerves. These classes use the input of the horse, activities on the horse and positioning on the horse, to provide strength, balance, and coordination.

Cognitive classes address the many processes of the mind, including planning, judgment, memory, orientation, concepts, attention, and language.

Sensory Processing classes provide activities on the horse to improve the brain's ability to take in, analyze and respond to information from the body's five senses. The primary goals of these classes are increased body awareness, sequencing and judgment skills, attention span, cause and effect, motor coordination, spatial awareness, and early learning skills.

Horsemanship classes help clients acquire and refine riding skills at the Center's highest level. In addition to the physical benefits of riding, clients improve judgment skills, social interaction, coordination, motor planning, self confidence and self-esteem, and a greater sense of independence.


Hippotherapy is a physical, occupational, or speech and language therapy treatment strategy that utilizes equine movement.


The organized movement of the horse is an effective treatment strategy used to improve function in patients with neuromusculoskeletal dysfunction.

A licensed physical therapist, occupational therapist and speech-language pathologist with specialized training in the principles of hippotherapy and horsemanship is responsible for directing the treatment team during a session using hippotherapy as a treatment strategy.

A hippotherapy session requires a carefully trained team consisting of:  patient, therapist, horse expert, horse and sidewalkers.

Equine Assisted Therapy, used by a medical professional, is part of a comprehensive treatment plan that integrates gains into functional activities.

Horses used in Equine Assisted Therapy should have good quality of movement, appropriate temperament and ongoing specialized training.  All horses should be treated humanely at all times.

Clinicians providing Equine Assisted Therapy are to maintain a high level of professional competence by participation in related continuing education activities.  They must follow the standards of practice and code of ethics for their discipline.


The term was inherited by therapists in North America from colleagues in Europe who have used the term since the early 1960’s.  Internationally, hippotherapy means “treatment with the help of the horse” and is derived from the Greek word “hippo”, meaning horse.  The term was created to distinguish the medical or rehabilitative use of the movement of the horse from other equine activities which emphasize applications for education, recreation or sport riding for the disabled.


Hippotherapy is not a separate form of therapy.  The term is an inclusive term that refers to the use of the movement of the horse as a treatment strategy and may also include therapeutic exercises and activities while on the horse.  Therapists are able to modify the use of this strategy depending on their patient population, clinical expertise and the scope of practice of their particular profession.


Hippotherapy Hippotherapy

Speech Language Hippotherapy

Use of a horse's movement (hippotherapy) is a treatment strategy utilized by physical, occupational and speech-language therapists. This type of treatment is a recognized medical treatment strategy used to treat impairments, functional limitations, and individuals with disabilities experiencing neuromuscular dysfunctions and developmental delays.

Hippotherapy is often an efficient speech and language treatment tool for many individuals who experience difficulty correctly interpreting daily sensory information. Many clients who benefit from this type of intervention, frequently experience difficulty with attention and concentration, organization, self-control, emotional regulation, behavior modification, motor planning, and muscle tone deficits.

Various children, experiencing difficulty attending and participating in traditional speech and language clinical treatments, find speech and language hippotherapy intensely pleasing. Children exhibiting behavior difficulties have often been observed to immediately eliminate those behaviors once mounted. Parents report a decrease in poor behavior and much more balanced sensory adjustments following the hippotherapy treatment sessions. The participant's self-confidence and well-being is lifted yielding greater cooperation and attention during their therapy sessions.

Speech and Language functioning cannot be separated from the rest of human structure and function. Efficient speech production and language use is dependent upon the integrity of the overall human physiology.

Speech production requires postural control. Head and neck control is necessary to support the oral-motor mechanism. Respiratory support is necessary for sustained airflow allowing phonation of speech sounds. Normal muscle tone and motor planning occurs in order to create and sequence speech sounds into meaningful units. Intact fine motor control impacts the quality of speech sounds produced. A well-integrated tactile and proprioceptive system influences accuracy and regularity of speech sound production.

Efficient language organization is connected to normal arousal and a well-integrated system. Receptive and expressive language requires functional arousal/attention, sensory feedback loops, perceptual accuracy and decoding, information processing/retrieval, conceptual symbolic knowledge, and communication need and intent.

Hippotherapy is multifaceted and affects multiple human systems. The equine movement influences the sensory system by providing highly organized sensory input to the vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile and visual system. The motor system is influenced by symmetrical input helping increase core stability, and timing of movement. The musculoskeletal system impacts movement of the pelvis/spine in a multidimensional pattern. The nervous system yields influence over arousal states for attention, interaction, learning and postural control. The respiratory system is influenced to assist with optimal function for respiration and circulatory function.

The equine movement offers the speech language pathologist a highly effective means of addressing speech and language disorders through the facilitation of the physiological system responsible for speech and language function.

The speech therapist overlays traditional speech and language intervention activities during hippotherapy treatments, promoting speech and language function to that patientís best ability.

Hippotherapy programs may address the following areas related to speech and language functioning:

Articulation Skills: Acquisition of phonemes and oral motor ability to produce specific sounds of language in a rapid and precise manner.

Dysarthria: Speech production deficit resulting from a central or peripheral nervous system disorder. The individual will attempt to express speech, however, the sounds and words that are expressed are distorted.

Apraxia of Speech: Is a nonlinguistic sensorimotor disorder of articulation characterized by difficulty in planning movements for speech. The individual knows what they want to say, but cannot figure out how to make the speech system function in ways that would result in specific sounds or sequences of sounds.


Receptive Language Skills: The ability to, process, comprehend, retain, or integrate spoken language. Receptive language disorders are often observed as difficulties with understanding what is being said. Children need to understand language before they can use language effectively. In most cases, the child with a receptive language disorder also experiences an expressive language disorder.

Expressive Language Skills: The ability to put words together to express thoughts cohesively. Children may demonstrate delays in expressive language development. Language deficits are often associated with difficulty acquiring syntactic-morphological rules of language and difficulty with expression of vocabulary concepts.

Pragmatic Language/Social Language: This is the area of language function that embraces the use of language in social contexts (knowing what to say, how to say it, and when to say it, and how to "be" with other people (Caroline Bowen, 2001). Deficits in pragmatic language are symptomatic of difficulty with use of eye contact, excessive talking about specific topics, unwarranted questioning, lack of interest in others, being short of the ability to observe perspectives, lack of interpretation of facial expressions and body language, and often having literal concrete understanding of language.

Related Links

American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA)
American Hipppotherapy Association, Inc. (AHA)
The Stuttering Foundation
National Stuttering Association (NSA)
San Diego Autism Society
National Fragile X Foundation
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
The Childhood Apraxia of Speech Association of North America (CASANA)
Life Spirit Speech Pathology, Inc.

The Shea Method

Clients are evaluated before entry into a program and frequently over time, to ensure placement in classes most beneficial to their individual needs and goals. Classes are small and structured to deliver individual attention and supportive socialization. In some cases, individual therapy is appropriate in preparation for graduation into more advanced classes. Programs are conducted in a safe, natural outdoor setting providing appropriate sensory input and a healthy environment.


Caring for our Partners - Our Horse Sponsorship Program

The Shea Center horses and ponies serve more than 200 clients during each session in our hippotherapy and therapeutic riding programs. The Shea Center horse sponsorship program provides the funds to support the yearly cost of caring for our horses and helps underwrite feed, shavings, horseshoes, veterinary care, tack, stall management, and other indirect costs such as utilities and facilities maintenance.

For our programs to be safe, effective and successful for our clients/riders, it is critical our horses be healthy, happy, and sound. We are most grateful to the generous individuals, organizations, foundations and businesses that provide the needed funding to care for and feed our therapy horses through their annual tax-deductible sponsorship donations.

While we rely on our licensed physical, occupational and speech therapy teams, our therapeutic riding instructors, and hundreds of volunteers to provide our services, our horses and ponies are essential to The Shea Center's ability to provide our therapeutic riding programs to our clients. The total cost to feed and care for one horse at the Center averages $8,000 a year and does not cover any additional veterinary or emergency costs that may arise during the course of the year.

There are three sponsorship recognition levels offered to fund the annual costs to keep our horses in the best possible condition for our clients. Make a gift to sponsor a Shea Center horse.

Sponsorship Recognition:
» A 100% tax-deductible contribution (your sponsorship gift is restricted to horse care)
» A photo of your horse
» The sponsor's name(s) placed on a special stall sign in the barn
» Horses sponsored at the Grand Champion Sponsorship level of $10,000 will also wear a leather halter with the sponsor's
    name(s) on the brass nameplate.

For more information, please contact the Shea Center Development Office: (949) 240-8441 ext. 109.

The Shea Center would like to express a very sincere thank you to Richard Markell, DVM of Ranch and Coast Equine Practice for the generous donation of his time, on a weekly basis, to care for The Shea Center therapy horses.

Look through photos of our horses and ponies.

View the gallery.