HORSES HELP ALONG LIFE'S PATH
The first thing you need to know about hippotherapy is that it has absolutely nothing to do with hippopatomi. That would be the opposite of therapeutic.
According to the American Hippotherapy Association, “Hippotherapy is a physical, occupational or speech and language therapy treatment strategy that utilizes equine movement.”
Great and Small Therapeutic Riding in Boyd, Md. provides hippotherapy as well as riding therapy for children and adults with physical and emotional disabilities. The facility recently received a PATH – Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship – accreditation.
“The horse’s movement provides sensory input and gives the clients a heightened sense of arousal so they can get their optimum speech,” said Megan Ferry, program director. “And it’s fun. It’s a lot more fun to work on speech goals sitting on a horse than sitting at a table.”
The clients at Great and Small have a variety of challenges. About 50 percent are autistic, Megan said. For clients who have trouble bonding with other people, a horse can provide the first step to building social connections.
“It’s easier to read a horse’s body language than a human facial expression,” she said.
“It’s an amazing connection the horses have with the kids and the kids with the horses,” said instructor Peggy Itrich.
Most of the horses at Great and Small are on long-term loan. Megan said there’s not typically enough money to purchase.
Therapeutic riding horses must be specially trained. They have to be physically fit and well behaved. At Great and Small, the horses undergo a 90-day trial period in which they are exposed to a variety of obstacles, including poles, rings and balls, and in which their temperaments and movements are closely observed.
For those with physical disabilities, riding can help develop core and muscle strength, as well as balance and posture. The psychological benefits abound as well.
“When any of our kids get on a horse, it gives them a sense of independence and being in charge, whether they can lead or not,” Peggy said.
And it’s not only the clients who benefit. Linda, who has been volunteering at Great and Small since 2011, said she finds the simple act of viewing the interactions between horse and rider to be therapeutic.
“It’s amazing to see how they interact with the kids,” she said. “It’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, especially when the horses haven’t been rolling in the mud.”
David wants to be an inspiration. He hopes others can follow in his footsteps.
Those footsteps can be hard to come by. David, 33, lives with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that can affect muscle coordination and movement.
For the past nine years, he has been coming to Great and Small Therapeutic Riding in Boyd, Md. The training David receives has helped his upper body and leg strength.
Before starting at Great and Small, David said, his posture was far more stooped, and he had to use his leg braces more often.
“I feel like I walk straighter,” he said. “I can walk for longer periods of time. It’s a tremendous improvement.”
Born in Ecuador, David came to the United States in 1995. He is warm, determined and extraordinarily polite. He is also a multi-sport athlete who competes in the Special Olympics in swimming, horseback riding, snow-shoeing, volleyball, basketball and sailing.
He holds on to instructor Peggy and volunteer Linda’s hands as they guide him through stretches on the vaulting barrel. The stretches hurt at first, he said, but as the years have passed, no pain.
“For the grand finale,” he announces, “I would like to try the prince.”
“The prince” has him kneeling on the barrel, arms out in a flourish.
The prince’s steed is Buttercup. As Peggy and Linda lead him at first, Peggy recommends shifting his weight in a manner that allows him to feel more balanced.
When David is ready to go off lead, he moves through a series of exercises, including weaving Buttercup around poles, and doing an egg-and-spoon, holding a wiffle ball on a ladle in his mouth, then dropping it into a basket. The exercise helps him to strengthen his legs and focus on keeping his balance while controlling the horse at the same time.
“I’m making goals every day,” he said. “I always come to my lessons with positive energy. I keep my spirits up and bring a smile to every lesson.”
The environment of Great and Small is a fun, positive one, he said. He gets along well with everyone. Some of the kids even call him Cowboy David, especially when he brings his mariachi hat. He wants to be someone they can look up to.
“No matter what your disability is,” he said, “there is always opportunity for great hope. No matter what challenges you are facing, always keep striving for your goals.”
GREAT & SMALL TESTIMONIALS
"A lot of people think this is a good place for horses to retire, but they do have to be in good shape, physically fit and well behaved." - Megan Ferry, program director, Great & Small Therapeutic Riding
"This is not a pony ride. It's amazing the strength and balance the riders can develop. It's an amazing connection the horses have with the kids and the kids have with the horses." - Peggy Itrich, instructor
"I'm not using the sticks (forearm crutches) any more, so that's a tremendous improvement." - David, Great & Small rider, has cerebral palsy
"When you have a child with autism and they start getting older, you realize it's important for him to have leadership skills. If I try to push him in mainstream activities like sports, he gets overwhelmed. This is something he gets excited to go to, he enjoys it. He makes sure I'm looking when he does something like trotting. He enjoys seeing the volunteers and instructors." - Rachel, mother of 12-year-old autistic son.