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Amy Johnson Nov 12, 2009

A horse of a different color: Using equine assisted therapy with those with physical, developmental and emotional needs

Horses have been used therapeutically with those who have physical, developmental and emotional limitations for more than four decades. As very social creatures, horses are often eager to please the humans in their lives. They cannot be easily forced into submission, but rather respond positively to slow, deliberate actions evoking trust.

In return, horses offer great physical and neuromuscular benefits in addition to companionship, non judgmental acceptance and a chance to master new skills. In therapeutic riding, the horse is used to improve the quality of life of the rider and that the riding experience is specifically adapted to fit the needs of the participant. For example, a child with limited mobility may have goals that include improving range of motion where an angry or traumatized youth would work on improving self esteem or increasing patience.

Dr. Bruce Perry, a neurobiologist and child psychiatrist who works with some of the worlds most maltreated children, is a proponent of riding for those who have experienced severe trauma. He has found that for children who have experienced or witnessed trauma, abuse or neglect, portions of their brains have not been fully developed. Using therapies that communicate withthe brainstem region rather than in the higher, more complex regions can help form new connections in the brain. Research has shown connecting with a trauma child in the brainstem regionleads to more rapid and superior treatment than traditional talk therapy alone, which is often beyond what these individuals can handle.

Using equine facilitated therapy is a unique way to address issues of self-esteem, depression and other emotional or psychological problems. Because of the massive size of the horse, riding requires close body-to-body contact which is often a void for those struggling with social isolation including those in institutional facilities. Horses provide the caring, consistent and trustworthy nature of a quality clinician which fosters the development of trust, self-esteem and self-efficacy. One participant who had experienced severe trauma spoke of her therapeutic riding experience this way, He (the horse) seems to know that Im disabled. He seems to know how I am disabled and he seems to know what I mean without me saying a word to him.

For autistic children, learning to talk about horses can expand vocabulary. For angry teens, quieting aggressive behavior to earn a horses cooperation teaches patience and impulse control. For those requiring physical therapy, route machine work is boring, but a 40 minute therapeutic ride is exciting.For those with crippling disabilities, their physical quality of life is compromised which can subsequently create feelings of sadness, hopelessness and despair. Thusriding a horse increasesstamina, physical strength and balance,andalsocreatesfeelings of greater self efficacy.

Id like to end this blog with a story about Sarah, 7 years old, who was born with hydranencephaly, which is a rare condition that caused her to only have the brainstem portion of her brain intact. She had only been given days to live and was blind, hearing impaired, wheelchair bound, nonverbal and could only eat via the daily feeding tubes. Her grandmother pursued equine assisted therapy and found Simple Blessings Farm. Nancy Uhron1, owner of Simple Blessings Farm, began sending CDs of classical music interlaced with the sounds of horses-whinnies, neighs, pounding hooves.

Sarah began to wiggle and squirm in her wheelchair and became more vocal. Sarah arrived at Simple Blessings to celebrate her 8th birthday. Nancy walked Sammy, a small grey pony, to Sarahs wheelchair. Sarahs grandmother lifted Sarahs hand to gently touch Sammys neck. At that moment, Sammy whinnied. Sarah grew very still and there was a brief moment of trepidation as they all wondered how Sarah would respond. She responded with a huge gap-toothed smile that spread from ear to ear and let out a joyful giggle. Sarah then tried to stand up out of her chair to better reach Sammy. Sarahs dad choked as he said, "She hasn't tried to do that in over a year." In response, Sammy quietly stepped closer to Sarah's scary chair with its hissing oxygen tubes and mechanized feeding tubes. What an incredible gift from a pony that had been neglected, abused and discarded before arriving at Simple Blessings Farm.

Nancy continued to work with Sarahs family about pony care and one day, a beautiful pony named Rikki was donated to her to share the remaining time Sarah had on earth. Because of the ponies in her life, Sarah was able to live the last part of her life with feelings of happiness and joy. Her family, as a result, has sustaining memories of a giggling child as she left the world.

To read more about this sweet story and others like it, check out The Worlds Children and Their Companion Animals: Developmental and Educational Significance of the Child-Pet Bond by Mary Renck Jalongo. For more information check out North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, visit

1 Nancy Uhron has worked in speech pathology/audiology and education of exceptional students before becoming a nurse. She has spent time working with children with autism, was executive director for a summer-camp for children and young adults with special needs and volunteers as an assistant horseback riding instructor for a therapeutic program and is the community director for a national non-profit that raises and trains miniature ponies as companion animals for people with special needs and/or serious illness and have been recruited for CART-crisis/disaster intervention/preparedness for large animals.

Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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