Equine Assisted Therapy

  • Marcy Uecker shares her son’s experience with equine assisted therapy

    Interview by Shanti Kurada

                Hippotherapy, which derives from the Greek word “hippo” for horse, is a physical therapy that is provided under the supervision of a physical or occupational therapist. It is intended to help children, youth, and adults that have physical and/or developmental disabilities. Therapeutic Riding has many of the same benefits, but it is more of a recreational riding program for children and adults with special needs.

                Hippotherapy and Therapeutic Riding use the horse’s multidimensional rhythmic movement to achieve specific therapeutic outcomes. Therapists help patients ride the horse in different positions, including sitting or laying forward, backward, or sideways; standing up in the stirrups; and riding on the horse without holding on.

    The following is an interview with Marcy Uecker, parent to a child with autism, regarding their family’s experience with hippotherapy.

    SK: What made you want to try equine assisted therapy or hippotherapy, as it is commonly called?  How long have you been doing it?

    MU: My son was in some form of therapy most of his day.  He was getting ABA, Speech and OT.  I wanted to get him out of the house.  I wanted him to enjoy nature, the outdoors.  Last year, when he was almost turning 10, I felt it was time for him to do more real world activities.

    We then heard about NCEFT from some of the other families at my son’s school.  When we realized it was right here in Woodside, we wanted to give it a try.

    We have been doing this therapy for over a year now.

    SK: What were some of your son’s strengths and challenges at the time you started hippotherapy?  Which of his challenges did you hope would be addressed by this therapy?

    MU: Although my son did not start talking until 4, over the years he became more and more verbal.  His speech went from being more rote in the beginning to more spontaneous.  Now at 11, he is very verbal, fairly spontaneous, but not always socially appropriate.  He doesn’t make much eye contact with strangers or new people.  But he can have quite a conversation with familiar people.  He has a pleasant, mellow nature.

    One of his biggest challenges is his difficulty with gross motor skills.  He always had challenges in this area.  He sat up late, walked late.

    I was hoping that hippotherapy would help him with his balance, coordination, strength building, and help with his overall gross motor development.  I also hoped that if he learnt to bond with an animal, it would help with his emotional/social development.

    SK: What happens during a session?  Do they work on specific goals?  How is progress measured?

    MU: An occupational therapist works with the child.  She first talks to the parent to get as much input about the child as possible.  She also observes the child before and during sessions.  Based on this, she identifies key areas to work on and develops goals and activities that address these areas.

    Progress is measured by observing increasing levels of skill and eventual mastery of specific tasks.  For example, my son was required to fine motor tasks such as beading while riding a horse.  As he progressed with this task, the level of complexity was increased.

    SK: Is it always the same instructor?  The same horse?  How do you find the staff to be?

    MU: It is usually the same instructor – the same OT or PT.  We went through a few horses.  One of them was very calm and docile.  One was very responsive.  One horse was very strong – that was the one that worked for my son eventually.  He needed a lot of input for his body.  The people are very caring and supportive.  And the horses are wonderful.

    SK: How much does it cost?  How did you pay for it?

    MU: It is approximately $150 per session (depending on the child’s needs) for hippotherapy.  Each session is 30 minutes. Therapeutic riding is $50 for a 30 minute session.  We have Blue Shield insurance and used codes for occupational therapy.  They paid 60% and we paid the rest out of pocket.  It was not easy to get insurance to pay for this.  We had to go through a lot of hoops.

    SK: What is the difference between hippotherapy and therapeutic riding?

    MU: Hippotherapy is a form of occupational therapy in which a therapist uses the movements of a horse to provide carefully graded motor and sensory input. This input helps improve neurological function and sensory processing.

    Therapeutic horseback riding (also known as equine-assisted activity or adaptive riding) is used to teach riding skills to people with disabilities. With therapeutic riding, the relationship between the rider and the horse can be emotionally beneficial.

    SK: What was your son’s initial reaction?  Was he fearful, nervous, or unwilling?

    MU: At first he was very resistant.  I told him we would go this farm and check out some horses.  He kept insisting he didn’t want to ride the horses.  In general he loves nature and hiking, but he was never very responsive to animals.  So I wasn’t really sure if he would ever actually get on a horse.

    So in the beginning, we simply looked at the horses, as they were eating or riding.

    SK: How did his attitude change over time?  Did he start engaging more in the activities?

    MU: He did not take very long to get used to the idea of riding on a horse.  The therapist would take him on a ‘sensory trail’.  He would need to touch certain things, or reach out to a mailbox and retrieve mail while riding.  She would be asked to hold his hands out or cross them against his chest.  He was required to ride sideways, or facing the back.  All of these exercises helped build his core muscles and his improved his balance and coordination.

    Sometimes he would start out eager and cooperative, but become more stubborn toward the end of the session.  He would get more tired and the demands would be too much for him.

    SK: How long has he been receiving hippotherapy?  How has it been going lately?

    MU: We have been doing this for over a year now.  He started off reluctantly, and then, after a few weeks, took to it really well.  He would look forward to going to the ‘horsey farm’.  After a few months, some of the novelty wore off.  Then we switched to therapeutic riding.  This is where they simply teach you how to ride.  He enjoyed that for a few sessions.  But lately, I’ve noticed that he’s not really bonding with the animals. So we’ve been encouraging him to take care of the horses.  He likes brushing them and watches them eat.  This is a new phase for us.  We would like to get back to therapeutic riding eventually.

    SK: What would your advice be to parents who are thinking about trying equine assisted therapy?

    MU: I’d say, it is well worth the time and effort to try something like this for therapy.  Regardless of the child’s challenges, riding a horse requires balance and coordination, so those areas get worked on. Also bonding with an animal can help a child with emotional development.  Being outdoors is great for all kids, and especially for kids on the spectrum.  For some kids, this may develop into a real interest.

    Marcy Uecker has been a member of the Executive Committee for Autism Speaks in the Bay Area for the past 3 years.  She is Mom to 3 amazing boys, her middle child August (11 years old) has autism.  Marcy’s goal is to work with families who have recently had a child diagnosed with autism and assists them in their journey.  For her son August, she continues focus on his strengths, independence and interests.  You can contact her at marcy@theueckers.com.

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