This is the third part of an article that is being published for the first time on Habitatforhorses.org. You can view Part I here and Part II here. This is being presented in three parts as it goes into depth on how rescued horses are vital to equine assisted therapy. Habitat for Horses offers equine assisted therapy program with rescued horses at their new facility in South East Texas. Contact us at 409-935-0277 for more information. ~ HfH
Part III – Rescued Horses Perfect Match for Equine Therapy Programs
By Maryann Peachey-Warren
Horse Harbor Foundation, Inc.
In general our own research and observations here at Horse Harbor provide evidence of “miracles” in children with Autism, Asperger’s, and other disabilities. It is important for anyone entering into this work to have a basic understanding that no matter what their diagnosis, each and every client must be viewed as a unique individual in their own right. For example, the mother of two autistic sons ages 11 and 8, respectively, signed up both boys for weekly equine therapy lessons at Horse Harbor where they have been able to work on muscle development, hand eye coordination, speech and physical therapy, and just as important, have fun. While the brothers have the same diagnosis, their personalities and degree of disability are as different as night and day. These differences are treated like the unique personality traits all individuals have, because no two people disabled or not, are alike. The older boy is outgoing and sensitive, doesn’t like to get dirt on himself and frequently has outbursts during the lesson. The younger boy had outbursts and self-destructive patterns from the beginning of his therapy until we identified that he didn’t like to groom horses inside the barn. Moving outside to the hitching rail solved the problem.
Equine assisted therapy classes at Horse Harbor involve a hands-on approach. Each student halters, leads, grooms, saddles, and bridles the horse with the help of regular riding students and adult volunteers. If a student is unable to perform these tasks, the instructor identifies this and finds new ways for each to be successful. By changing the surroundings and allowing the boy mentioned above to groom outside, he is now able to be successful grooming without an outburst. In addition, we took a series of pictures of him performing each grooming task separately and gave him a picture book to look at throughout the week so he could become familiar with the tasks. This too was a big hit and he is now grooming his own horse as well as riding.
More information found in our research includes, The Effectiveness of Equine Assisted Experiential Therapy (EAET): Results of an Open Clinical Trial by authors Bradley T. Klontz, Alex Bivens, Deb Leinart & Ted Klontz about an equine assisted therapy approach and treatment outcomes for 31 participants in an equine assisted, experiential therapy program. The participants completed psychological assessments prior to, after and in six month follow ups. The study was looking for psychological distress and enhancements to well-being immediately after treatment. All showed progress not achieved prior to their experiences with horses.
In yet another body of research in 2004 examining the effectiveness of hippotherapy versus traditional therapy, Beth L. Macauley and Karla M. Gutierrez studied three boys ages 9, 10, and 12 years, with Language Learning Disabilities (LLD) who were receiving traditional speech and language therapy services from a university program in Communication Disorders at the Speech and Hearing Clinic in Spokane, Washington. They reported, “The procedure consisted of six weeks of hippotherapy sessions after satisfactory completion of a questionnaire. The therapy consisted of the client sitting on a therapy horse with a speech language therapist. During the hippotherapy sessions for this study, the therapist either walked or stood beside the client. Materials were presented to the client using picture, word, and letter cards; small dry erase boards; and lap desks with pencil and paper.” The results of the study showed that hippotherapy was successful to different degrees for all three.
And yet another study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2006 about the effects of a therapeutic riding program on at-risk a special education children showed that an eight-session therapeutic riding program significantly decreased anger in adolescent boys in a special education program and positively affected their mothers’ perception of the boys’ behavior. Support for this was found in the article, Equine facilitated psychotherapy: Applications for therapeutic vaulting. Maureen Vidrine reported in 2002 that horses also offer a variety of opportunities for projection and transference. A horse walking away, ignoring, being distracted by other horses, sleeping, wanting to eat at the wrong time, biting, urinating, and neighing are common horse behaviors to which clients respond. Clients can also often relate to a horse’s natural hyper vigilance and impulse to flee when the horse feels frightened or threatened.
D. Bertoli in 1988 provided the first objective data on the benefits of hippotherapy. Evaluations of posture in 11 children, aged 28-114 months, with spastic cerebral palsy were conducted before and after participation in hippotherapy provided two times a week for 10 weeks. Each riding session stressed reduction of spasticity with subsequent facilitation of normal movement skills such as trunk control and weight shifting. Results of the postural assessment scores showed that posture was significantly improved in 8 of the 11 children. The children with spastic diplegia demonstrated overall improvement while children with spastic quadriplegia demonstrated improvement in head and shoulder alignment. All of the parents and referring therapists reported improvements such as reduced spasticity and improved balance.
Another view of equine therapy is found in the numerous stories written by Kim Meeder of Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch in Oregon. She gives a spiritual account of how horses have made it into the hearts of children with mental health issues, illness, and disability. Like Horse Harbor, Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch is a nonprofit organization that rescues abused, abandoned and neglected horses and pairs them with seeking children. The ranch’s program is special in that it pairs one child with one horse guided by one leader. This is done free of charge since it’s’ program is financially supported by other means and does not require charging a nominal fee as we do.
In her book A Bridge Called Hope, Meeder describes the condition she found one of the ranch horses in. In a seizure from the Sheriff’s department in Central Oregon, Meeder and her husband came across an emaciated mare 400 pounds underweight with minimal chances of survival, but nursed it back to health to become a therapy horse. As an instructor and associate director of Horse Harbor, which rescues abused, abandoned and neglected horses in the West Sound Region of Washington State, I too have witnessed this many times. Today two former severely neglected brood mares who had never been ridden are among our best EAT horses. It makes me angry and sickened at the same time to think how anyone could let such a thing happen to an innocent animal. At the same time, I think about all the horrible things done to children without anyone taking notice. The fact that animals offer an opportunity for people to share stories of strength, hope, mercy, faith, love and humor is a testament to who we are.
Meeder first wrote about her experience matching horses with people in the book Hope Rising. Again, she identifies how horses have been a catalyst for helping people with a broken spirit. She describes Adam, a young boy “shadowed with sadness” and having lived a life that, “had known more terror in his handful of years than most knew in a lifetime”. As it turns out, Adam had been severely beaten by his father, who also made him run around the yard while he shot at him with a rifle. In short, this little boy was broken physically, mentally and emotionally.
Meeder paired him with a small pony named Hobbs, who actually held Adam in the curve of his neck. Adam spoke for the first time and asked what the pony was doing to him. Meeder told him that Hobbs was hugging him and she had never seen him do that before. Here’s how she describes this event, “Adam’s face began to relax with my reassurance. He appeared to accept what I’d said. Slowly, he wriggled his right arm out and began to hug the pony back. For a brief moment, this battered child was allowed to be nothing more than a little boy loved by his pony. Adam’s head slowly dropped until it rested on Hobb’s neck. Like a whispered prayer, more to himself than to anyone else, he began saying over and over, “He likes me…he likes me…he likes me.”
In general, it is stories like this and formal research that is beginning to circulate in a professional manner that provides the evidence of the vast benefits of equine assisted therapy. Who is to say what really happens between horses and humans? What we do know is that the relationship has survived the test of time and it is abundantly clear that the benefits of equine assisted therapy allow miracles to take place in the lives of disabled persons. What I have seen myself and read about young people with disabilities participating in equine therapy is that almost all can become successful in this learning and recreational activity. The horse is the athlete so all the rider has to do is learn how to communicate with the animal. It teaches students, parents, and instructors about life skills of kindness and compassion. Students with physical, mental and/or cognitive disabilities may not be equals on the ground to those without disability, but on horseback they can reach their own individual goals successfully.