Interacting with horses like Sprite and Coke helps kids with disabilities

Hippotherapy actually has nothing to do with hippos, and everything to do with horses, as the Greek word for horse is hippo.  (Bonus points if you knew that hippopotamus means “river horse”.) Hippotherapy  means literally horse therapy, and according to the American Hippotherapy Association:

“…promotes the use of the movement of the horse as a treatment strategy in physical, occupational and speech-language therapy sessions for people living with disabilities. Hippotherapy has been shown to improve muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination, motor development as well as emotional well-being.”

 All well and good, Professor Dasha, but what does this have to do with Okinawa? Haven’t you guessed, dear reader? Okinawa has stables which provide Hippotherapy!

Yesterday my daughter Heather and I had an amazing time working with a team of volunteers and a variety of special needs children (mostly American) in Yomitan.

DSC06336 Therapist Chris was all smiles, even when mucking out stalls!

For privacy reasons I can’t post pictures of the kids, but I wish you could see the looks on their faces as they interacted with the horses and volunteers. As a general rule, each child worked with a team – one volunteer to lead the horse, and two therapists (or a therapist and another volunteer) to walk along each side of the horse.

DSC06320 Volunteer Katie with Pepper

The therapists put the children through a series of challenges, based on their individual abilities. For some, sitting on the horse was challenge enough. Others had to choose between colored objects, handing them to and from the therapist, all while balancing bareback on a pony. One little boy rode his horse facing backwards, practicing movements like “arms up! arms out!”

Not all the children were wreathed in smiles. Some very vocally expressed their impatience, displeasure, or frustration with the challenges presented. But they stayed the course for the therapy, in spite of not wanting to participate.

DSC06317 Volunteer Heather with Karen, an experienced therapeutic horse

My heart was touched by the therapists and volunteers who patiently and cheerfully worked with all of the kids. But my heart completely melted watching the kids give their all for their sessions – thirty minutes of intense mental and physical challenges that had to be exhausting. Yet some still managed to smile and wave to their parents through it all.

If you have a child with special needs and want to know if you qualify for the Hippotherapy program, or if you want to volunteer as a helper, please contact the Educational & Developmental Intervention Services (EDIS) office located on Kadena, building 9497.


  1. I just noticed that in earlier comments, the director,Terry, provides her email address to anyone who is interested. She is a super nice lady and can provide you with easy directions. She checks her e-mail a lot so get in touch with her!

  2. I have been volunteering with the program on and off for about two years and have taken children as young as nine to volunteer with me. The ponies are super docile and completely trustworthy and the kids we put on them range in age from about 14 months to 12 years I believe. The barn is up on a hill near Zakimi castle ruins up by cape Zampa and is owned by a local national (awesome guy, Mr. Toma!) who farms the area and loans his horses and facility to the program free of charge. I definitely recommend volunteering here, the people are wonderful and it’s a nice little escape from base. And if you grew up anything like me, the smell of horse poop will put a big old smile on your face if the view, people, and animals don’t! For anyone who is interested in volunteering and would like more information, you can hop on Facebook and look up Okinawa Hippotherapy. The director, Dr. Terisa (Terry) Ashoft and a friend set up the page and I think she checks it regularly.

  3. What an awesome opportunity! I was wondering how old you have to be to volunteer. I have a brother with autism and I’ve been riding horses for nearly 5 years and in need of service hours for school.


  4. When can I come out?? I’ve been surrounded by horses my whole life and it’s been killing me since I got here not seeing horses and riding everyday!! This would be therapy for me, just to be able to be around the horses and help. I have worked at these types of camps before and have trained horses and given lessons to kids and adults. Please let me know!

  5. I can’t wait to get there and help out! I volunteered w/ hippotherapy when I was a teenager, and recently took my oldest out to a ranch here in the states that does the same. I’m so excited to see there is one on Okinawa! Thanks for making my day!

  6. @ Emma, this is still going on and is GREAT! my kids do it weekly.

    You can still contact Terisa Ashofteh-her email is mentioned above.

    I know Teri is always looking for good volunteers who can really commit, and as a parent, I am SO grateful to those that take their time to volunteer!

  7. Ok, so I have been going to the Hippotherapy barn for over 2 years. I love being able to watch the children grow and change through the program. If there is any other questions I would be happy to answer, we go out ever wendesday from about 3:30 till 6:30 depending on the number of children. If you help we try to see that you are able to get on one of our horse before the night is over, But some times there are too many riders (with special needs) that take prority.

  8. Erica, there are many volunteer opportunities here on the island. If you go to the “menu” bar on the top of this page, click on “to do” then scroll down you’ll see the “volunteer” category – click on it and all the posts done to date on volunteering will come up! Best wishes finding the opportunity that works for you! 🙂

  9. What a wonderful post. I have been wondering what type of volunteering I could do and this seems great. I have never heard of hippotherapy but it seems like a great way to reach out to the children. Does anyone have any other volunteering projects? Have members of Okinawa Hai gone together and done volunteering as a group?


  10. I was already familiar with the term because I used to head a team that focused on resources for homeschoolers with special needs – but your description at the beginning gave me a huge laugh. You’re right – it *does* fit! LOL

    That said, it is AWESOME to learn this is available here!!! Hippotherapy can be absolutely incredible for people of all ages. What a great resource. THANKS for sharing it!