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Film Review of More Than Horseplay
By Brandi Redding

Hippotherapy, using a horse for the treatment of emotional or physical disabilities, has long been advocated with only anecdotal evidence to support it. Previous studies were small or poorly formed, leaving no hard, credible evidence for the benefits of equine therapy. More Than Horseplay is a documentary following researchers who hoped to form a large, well-constructed study that would provide scientific proof of hippotherapy’s benefits.

The program recruited 91 children aged 4 to 12 with cerebral palsy, 27 horses, and more than 60 volunteers to participate in the program. The children were given thorough physical examinations to evaluate their physical capabilities and to create a baseline to judge improvement, specifically measuring range of motion in joints and muscles, muscle strength, and ability to complete everyday tasks. Parents also filled out questionnaires to assess quality of life. One half of the children were entered into the riding program for 10 half-hour weekly lessons while the other half received no additional treatment.

Although the study was the first sizeable one to scientifically track the effects of hippotherapy, the results were less than optimistic. Although individual results varied, overall the study didn’t show any measurable improvement. After consideration, researchers faulted the study design, including the small participant number and the varying levels of disability among the children (ranging from mild to moderate). Their conclusion was that while the study was inconclusive, it was very informational and illustrated the need for further investigation. The instructor who led the therapy sessions conveyed it best when she said, “Sometimes you can improve function without actually changing a physical measurement.”

While the study did not provide the concrete evidence of hippotherapy’s benefits, the film shows positive results, focusing on three children—Georgia, Lachlan, and Angus—who all have different levels of function. Viewers follow the story of the study as each child rides a horse for the first time and the instructor explains what is going on and the reasoning behind each therapeutic measure.

The film concludes with the three children at the end of the program, smiling, confident, and stronger. Not only have the volunteers working with the children seen improvement, but the families discuss the changes in the children, not just physically but emotionally, as they gain confidence and focus. We are given a very optimistic feeling about the benefits of hippotherapy, even if they are just anecdotal stories, or tracked changes of these three individuals.

The documentary provides a balance of emotional pull through the stories of the children and educational material with information on cerebral palsy, hippotherapy, and treatment for the condition. Even though the cases took place in Australia, the knowledge is applicable anywhere. Although the study’s end results were scientifically unsatisfactory, the value of the smiles and boosted confidence of Georgia, Lachlan, and Angus are immeasurable.

— Brandi Redding is an editorial assistant for Social Work Today and an avid equestrian.