One Step at a Time
Equine-assisted therapy helps Wisconsin children
By Gracie Pasterski
As winter weather fades and spring approaches, Lifestriders horse stable remains a warm environment year round. Young riders appear one by one. Each bundled in layers of clothing, thick heavy jackets and their helmets strapped tight.
Tiny dust particles collect on clothing while the smells of hay and animals fill the barn. Volunteers of all ages help groom and saddle the horses which are patiently waiting to start work. The therapeutic riding session begins. Parents watch from the small waiting area behind a light wooden fence, separating them from the well lit, rectangle arena.
LifeStriders offers a unique form of therapy. One that is gaining notice for producing effective results. Equine Assisted Therapy is a rehabilitation growing in popularity across the United States. Horses help thousands of children with special needs, including more than one hundred clients in southeastern Wisconsin.
In front of the watching area is a heated indoor riding ring. Scattered orange cones lay atop the dirt floor. A basketball hoop located in the back left corner is used for coordination skills; signs and pictures used for therapy activities cover the white arena walls.
Two gentle giants are led through a heavy red gate into the arena. Riders are assisted while mounting the horse, and each is surrounded by three volunteers. One will take the role as a “leader” and lead the horse throughout the lesson. The other two will be “side walkers” to ensure the riders safety.
The two horses stand in the arena appearing calm, looking as though it is simply another day on the job. Both are different breeds, ensuring a drastic different in their overall appearance. A chestnut colored Quarter horse stands tall and elegant next to a smaller, cream colored horse. With a blondish brown forelock long enough to cover both eyes and a mane and tail just as wild, he looks like a large miniature pony. His coat so thick, it appears as if he has been outside all winter.
Laughter and chatting is present in each square foot of the facility. Rascle Flatts echoes from the speakers, filling the barn with a country feel.
One rider is twelve-year-old Jacob Roncone. His short and slender build matches the thinness to the frames of his glasses. His blonde hair resembling the color of the cream colored pony. The black helmet gets strapped and snapped under his chin and he is ready to ride.
Jacob’s ability to comprehend every instruction while atop the horse proves he is focused and relaxed. Laughing with his side walkers, he gently moves back and forth with each step of the horse.
After Jacob’s hour-long therapy session, he is eager to talk about his favorite part of the ride.
“I’m gonna say trotting,” said Jacob.
Because of the diversity and challenges to overcome in each child’s therapy, LifeStriders strives to incorporate different activities into each riding session.
For building strength, the children lift weights above their heads. This therapy strengthens the body while stimulating brain waves and muscle control.
Lori Voecks, Program Manager at LifeStriders, explains why such devices as weights are used.
“It’s great for balance,” she says. “That’s why we use a lot of weights because especially autistic kids, they don’t have a feeling of themselves in space. We have weighted vests or hand weights that help them feel grounded, helps them feel where they are in relation to their body.”
The smile streaming across Jacob’s face for the hour-long lesson ensures his happiness during activities such as: “fishing” (hand-eye coordination) “basketball” (muscle use), and “red light, green light” (the use of motor and vocal skills).
“Fishing” consists of the child using a short pole that has a long string with a magnet attached to the end. From atop the horse, they must maneuver the magnet over a small area located on a cut out “fish” lying on the dirt floor in the arena. Once the two magnets attach, they have “caught” the fish, completing the task.
LifeStriders offers multiple programs in order to accommodate as many clienteles as possible. Therapeutic riding lessons, social skills program, veterans program, and a youth program are all offered through the stable.
“We have a Veteran’s program. We also serve at risk youth in providing them job skills when they come to volunteer,” says Voecks.
Though Jacob is a determined, independent young boy, he struggles with a disease that affects every muscle in his body, known as Hypotonia. The disease is characterized by decreased tone of the skeletal muscles. Normally, muscle tone is regulated by signals that travel from the brain to the nerves and tell the muscles to contract.
Jacob, as well as more than 90 other children who are riders at LifeStriders, are receiving Equine-Assisted Therapy. This therapy is growing rapidly due to the quick, positive responses from children.
Robert Conley, a Physical Therapist and President of LifeStriders, says he realized long ago how quickly the therapy was emerging.
“In 2005 we started with a client that showed up on our front porch and didn’t know what we were doing, but had heard that there was therapeutic riding,” Conley says. “This person had Cerebral Palsy. We started with him and we grew the program very quickly. We knew that we needed to expand to accommodate the need, especially in this area.”
The American Hippotherapy Association says that being atop a horse provides the rider with movement which is variable, rhythmic and repetitive. The horse is a dynamic base of support, becoming a tool for increasing base and core strength, balance, postural strength, and motorskills.
Voecks, LifeStriders program manager, described why and how riding the horse
helps children with special needs.
“So, a horse’s gait is the closest thing to a human’s gait, and the heel strike, and the way the hips move and the way the knees move is the same action a human’s heel strike has, sending those signals up the spine to make the brain work,” says Voecks.
Aside from building strength in a therapeutic session, children’s tactile senses are also stimulated. The horse's skin is fuzzy, the mane and tail are rough, and the nose is soft. Discovering these sensations helps draw children out, stimulating development of their verbal communication and interest in physical objects.
History of Equine Assisted Therapy
Therapeutic horseback riding dates back centuries. However, The Chronicle of the Horse, a magazine dedicated specifically to horse articles, suggests that the creation of therapeutic riding facilities is due to Lis Hartel of Denmark.
Hartel suffered from Polio and used her horse as a therapy tool. The disease affected control of her hands and arms, and paralyzed her below the knees.
Hartel was advised to stop riding, yet she continued for three years. Shortly after, Hartel went on to win two Olympic medals in Grand Pre Dressage and would become a Danish Dressage Champion seven times. After winning the Olympics, Hartel and her therapist founded Europe’s first therapeutic riding Center.
The achievements of Hartel caught the attention of medical and equine professional’s immediately and centers for therapeutic riding rapidly sprang up in Europe.
By the late 1960’s, Equine-Assisted Therapy was accepted by the America Medical Association as an “invaluable therapeutic tool.”
"She was the inspiration for the establishment of the first therapeutic riding centers."
Today at LifeStriders, there are over fifty volunteers, as well as four full time and three part time staff . More than one hundred individuals, mostly children, receive equine assisted therapy each week.
“We see C-P clients that come to us in a completely hunched over position that find themselves in a couple of sessions with just a ton more flexibility after the lesson and an ability to maintain a posture that can have them walking and doing their activates of daily living a lot better,” says Conley.
The clientele range in age and needs. Conley says their youngest rider was three years old, the eldest being over seventy.
Dr. Carlynn Alt & Dr. Kathleen Broderick Woody
Dr. Carlynn Alt is a clinical associate professor in Physical Therapy at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Alt has personal experience with Equine-Assisted Therapy; her daughter has brain damage and is a bit asymmetrical in her muscle tone.
Years ago, she enrolled her daughter in an equine therapy program before LifeStriders was even created.
“If I could continue her in therapeutic riding I would love to have her do it because the social aspect too and the empowerment for the child being able to work with the animal,” Alt says. “I think there’s benefits.”
The therapy is proving to help children with varying disabilities and needs. Whether the response of the child is the ability to sit up straight, walk, talk, or simply focus, the benefits are noticeable.
“If there are particular muscle groups that have too much muscle activity, sometimes the position where you’re placed on the horse, the repetitive nature of riding on that horse, can give some relaxation to muscles,” Alt says. “You might also be able to activate other muscles like the core. The combination of the child’s positioning on that animal while the animal is moving can help to facilitate benefits in several different muscle groups.”
Physical, Occupation, and Speech Therapy on Horseback
Equine Therapy can incorporate physical, occupational and speech therapy all into one session.
The physical therapist can overlay a variety of motor tasks with the horse’s movement to address the motor needs of each patient related to sitting, standing, and walking.
A speech-language pathologist can use equine movement to facilitate the physiologic systems that support speech and language.
Jacob's father, Matt Roncone, insists that Jacob gets more than physical benefits from LifeStriders.
“Socially, Jacob prefers to be around adults rather than kids so he really enjoys being here and thinks of the volunteers as his friends,” Roncone says.
According to the American Hippotherapy Association, patients respond enthusiastically to this enjoyable experience in a natural setting.
“I noticed that she is more focused after this,” says Morgan’s mother, Kathy Kase. “She’s more in tune to the surroundings. She’s looking up more, she’s not in her own little world anymore. I’ve seen improvements in all areas. I don’t think she would be where she is today without these four short months with LifeStriders.”
Depending on the family’s schedule, as Alt notes, Equine Therapy can have barriers that are difficult for families.
“There is a big time commitment,” Alt says. “It’s transportation to the farm. I had other children. It’s a lot for parents to have to manage other children while you’re there. When you live in Milwaukee, to get to a farm is probably thirty to forty-five minutes. So that was a barrier for us.”
The ability to combine multiple therapies into one equine therapy session is another cause of its extensive growth. One therapy session has the potential to intermingle physical and occupational therapy, as well as speech-language pathology. In a traditional therapy setting, many businesses are limited to providing one or two therapies. For the others, families have to go to multiple different facilities or hospitals.
Dr. Kathleen Broderick Woody, Clinical Director and Psychologist at Autism Intervention Milwaukee explained how traditional therapy settings, such as AIM’s doesn't offer occupational therapy or physical therapy.
“We don’t have occupational therapists on staff necessarily, but most of our kids are receiving OT through the school district or privately," she says.
PATH Intl. statistics show that today there are nearly 4,500 certified instructors and equine specialists; 850 member centers around the globe; and more than 7,500 PATH International members that help more than 54,000 children and adults with physical, mental and emotional challenges.
“People have learned to walk here. They’ve talked to their parents for the first time. It’s crazy,” said Conley.