New Hampshire Horsetalk Combines Speech Therapy with Horseback Riding
“Giddy up horsey” just got a whole new meaning for children with special needs in the Northeast (and no, its not riding on daddy’s back). At one special New Hampshire barn, speech therapy techniques are being combined with therapeutic horseback riding to create a new kind of therapy experience. At Horsetalk Therapeutic Services in Raymond New Hampshire, director Ms. Toby Freeman, a certified speech and language pathologist, has designed a program that provides Hippotherapy to children and adults with physical, cognitive and emotional disorders. She began the treatment after having studied speech and language pathology and having a lifelong love of horses.
Hippotherapy is a medical treatment strategy that uses the rhythm and movement of a horse to help patients with developmental disorders; though it might sound new, it has been used in therapy in Europe for years and is slowly making its way to the U.S.. Hippotherapy is not the same as recreational riding; hippotherapy is a treatment strategy only, used in conjunction with traditional therapy tasks provided by a speech and language pathologist, occupational therapist or physical therapist. Children who might benefit from this therapy include children with: autism, Asperger’s, developmental delays, cerebral palsy, language disorders, head injuries, stroke, stuttering, motor coordination problems and metabolic disorders.
The Benefit of Horses
According to the Horsetalk website, horses can help alleviate challenges of children with sensory impairments – which can often have a negative impact on speech, language and cognition. While riding, the sensory input from the horse arouses the patient’s vestibular, tactile and proprioceptive systems – providing a foundation for the development of sensory motor abilities that might otherwise be abnormal. For motor challenges, the horse’s movement helps facilitate a normal gait pattern. Hippotherapy promotes motor planning abilities, mobilizes the hip, pelvis and lumbar spine, stimulates the central nervous system, activates weak muscles and reduces spasticity which leads to improved posture, mobility, balance, respiration, articulation and cognition. Horsetalk also suggests that this type of therapy setting can be highly motivating for some patients who relate to and enjoy the company of animals. Further, the environment and sensory experiences of the barn, trails and animals can stimulate participation and language.
Children seen for hippotherapy have speech and language goals just like any other treatment session – except with an obvious change of scenery. Sessions begin with saddling up, preparing with a helmet and mounting the horse inside the barn. Sessions may take place inside the arena or outside on a trail. Speech therapy is incorporated into all activities with the horses, including grooming and saddling up. Therapists provide engaging activities (drawing, basketball, potato head) while in motion atop the horse the entire time. Riders can also practice following directions and giving directions to the horse. Along the sensory trail, sights, sounds, textures and smells are incorporated into activities along the way.
According to acclaimed author, Temple Grandin, “Both the art of riding and being with horses helps children on the spectrum.” Grandin has Autism herself and travels and writes about the relationship between and treatment of humans and animals. She says, “Many people on the ASD spectrum have an affinity for animals and really understand them. This may be because their visual thinking is similar to the animal.” Children with Autism and other developmental disorders often benefit from the sensory experience of touching and engaging with animals including dolphins and dogs, which can be found in numerous other non-traditional therapies. To engage children in at-home sensory experiences with animals, consider building a touch tank for a water loving experience.
To learn more about the benefits of Hippotherapy and resources that my be available in your area, visit the American Hippotherapy Association Website.