LEHI — The rocking sway of a gentle steed brings more than a smile to Emilee Robison's face.

To the tiny 3-year-old, time atop a trained horse brings her closer to being able to walk, talk and play like other children.

So says her family and therapists working with the girl, whose development may have been slowed by Hirschsprung's disease, a bowel disorder that occurs in one of 5,000 children.

When Emilee started horseback therapy — which is called hippotherapy, stemming from the Greek word for "horse" — her motor skills were weak and attention span limited.

"I couldn't even read to her," said her mother, Joanne Robison.

Now, three months after starting therapy sessions on horseback, she can sit and color, just like other kids her age.

"Even her fine motor skills have improved," Joanne Robison said. "It is just amazing."

Hippotherapy is not new — but it is growing in popularity across the country. Just ask Tami Tanner, who operates a therapy program called Courage Reins, just west of Lehi.

Tanner, who is a riding coach and home-health nurse, thought of using hippotherapy two years ago as a way of combining her two vocations.

According to the American Hippotherapy Association, which also counts therapy groups in Ogden, Park City and Draper among its ranks, the horse's gait is rhythmic, repetitive and resembles the movement patterns of the pelvis while people are walking.

The motion of riding a horse gently exercises the rider's spinal column, joints and muscles. Sitting atop a walking horse can strengthen muscles that are used for balance, posture and mobility.

And the excitement of handling a horse and developing a connection with the animal often gives clients a confidence boost, said Buck Mendenhall, a physical therapist who has used hippotherapy for 12 years.

"I've not been involved with a physical therapy program that helps more," Mendenhall said.

Tanner, who operates the nonprofit Utah County horse-therapy group, wants to raise enough money to build a larger arena to accommodate the growing number of people she serves.

Some 30 people a week, many of them children, come to her for therapeutic riding sessions. Tanner said that number could grow to 100 by July 1.

Salt Lake City's April Hinckley has been helping her 3—year—old son Jacob ride horses for a year. He has cerebral palsy.

The Hinckleys recently moved to Utah from Washington, where Jacob was also in a hippotherapy program.

The therapy has helped him gain head and sitting control and is helping him develop muscle reflexes. April Hinckley also sees improvement in Jacob's balance and coordination.

Horseback riding will "loosen up" a person with cerebral palsy and has helped at least one of Tanner's clients with multiple sclerosis walk again, Tanner said.

Other successes trickle off her tongue. Take, for example, the accident victim who can now live at home and care for herself. And she also sees progress in clients with attention-deficit disorder, who seem to do much better when they rely on riding therapy instead of medication.

"It's like rewiring the brain," Tanner said. "We don't know why it works. It just works."