Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Equine Therapy

My cousin in Soldotna is an occupational therapist and loves horses and she dreamed of combining the two in a way that would help kids grow and work through their specific issues. Three years ago she started a hippotherapy business, Nature's Way Rehabilitation Services, that operates one day a week in the summer. This year her summer program is offering both occupational therapy (by Angela Beplat) and speech therapy (by Noelle Miller), whom are both American Hippotherapy Association Level 1 Certified Therapists. Internationally, hippotherapy means "treatment with the help of the horse" and is derived from the Greek Word "hippo", meaning horse. The term "hippotherapy" 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 sport riding for the disabled. The term is used by North American therapists to maintain consistency in the use of semantics internationally and to designate that the movement of the horse is being used by physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapist, PTAs, and COTAs in a treatment setting. Last Friday I was on my way to Anchorage (again!) and stopped by to see how it worked. It was a sweet little operation.

When we got there a little boy with autism was riding backwards on the horse. There are various benefits to different position(s) used in hippotherapy. Riding backwards improves posture, alters typical sitting sensory input, and provides a large surface for upper extremity weight bearing and function. Every so often they would stop and a volunteer would throw a ball to him, he would catch it (to applause by everyone) and throw it back (to applause by everyone). He would squeal in delight and was all smiles and even my not-too-expressive daughter exclaimed, "He's a cute kid!"

Then a brother and sister showed up for their session. Each has different issues they are in therapy for. Their grandparents are now applying to adopt their grandkids, and I chatted with the grandfather and he spoke glowingly of how far his grandson, who is autistic, has come during therapy, and how much the horse therapy has been a welcome boost for the kids. A 6-year-old with cerebral palsy has been coming for three years and he walks in a walker. Up on the horse, he must feel like he is flying because he absolutely loves riding! Angela asked him if he would rather ride a horse to get stronger or walk on the treadmill, and he promptly said "ride a horse!"

Each child has a 45 minute session and there is 15 minutes in between sessions for the volunteers to change therapy equipment (which is typically a bareback saddle pad or vaulting single or double sursingle), take a break or regroup. Some kids have severe physical ailments or emotional issues and it can take some time to get them into the arena and on the horse. Many have never been around horses before so it can be a huge confidence booster to successfully ride one. There are 1 or 2 volunteers per child, with one person leading, a therapist on the left as the main sidewalker and sometimes a sidewalker is also needed on the right, depending on the skill of the child. Each child wears a belt so if the horse gets spooked, the guides can pull them off.

I have heard my cousin talk about this for years, but it was neat to actually be there and see the kids experiencing this. The volunteers were enthusiastic about the program and were very nice people, so there was just an overall good feeling about the setup. It reminds me how, despite the remoteness of Alaska, there are gems like this that one wouldn't expect to find....and it is a gem!

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