Horse therapy helps those with handicaps saddle up for success
Keianna Rae Harrison
2:44 PM, Jul. 24, 2012
Terri Noffke's daughter, Brianna, saw her first rodeo during a family vacation when she was just 8 years old. Like any other little girl, Brianna wanted to join in during audience participation time, but couldn't.
"I had a mommy meltdown," Noffke said. "I wanted so badly for her to be able to participate, but I knew it wasn't safe."
Years later, with the help of the staff at Morning Dove Therapeutic Riding Center in Zionsville, Brianna, who is semi-handicapped, participated in her first rodeo. Now 19, Brianna has won several gold, bronze and silver medals riding horses in the Special Olympics.
Morning Dove and many facilities like it are providers of equine-assisted therapy, a practice that incorporates the use of horses to help with cognitive, developmental and behavioral difficulties in children and adults.
"We riding skills to clients age 3 to 99, and 30 percent of our clients are adults," said Kate Murphy, program director at Morning Dove. "Programs like ours are great for handicapped children who may not be able to participate in traditional sports. Riding a horse can make them feel special because it's a unique sports activity that they can do. We even use horses to provide therapy to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder."
Different from a traditional horseback-riding lesson, therapeutic riding incorporates the natural movements of a horse to provide calming effects during sessions that work especially well for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Morning Dove offers a variety of programs, including therapeutic riding, A Horse Like Me program for children with ASD, Heroes on Board veterans program, Crossroads Easterseals Camp Ability and hippotherapy.
According to the American Hippotherapy Association, hippotherapy is a physical, occupational and speech- language treatment strategy that uses equine movement as part of an integrated intervention program to achieve functional outcomes.
Jacob Stricklen, 4, was recently diagnosed with autism. Jacob, who was born 7 1/2 weeks premature, walked and generally performed according to the developmental milestones of children his age.
"He did a lot of the 'normal' things a child should do, he just didn't communicate well," said his mother, Kristian Little. "He would use one or two words to talk when he should've been speaking in full sentences."
At 18 months, Jacob's doctors became concerned that he might be autistic. A family friend and equine-assisted therapist referred Kristian and Jacob to Strides to in Plainfield, where he will begin hippotherapy in the coming months.
"During hippotherapy, the horse is used as a therapeutic tool like a balance beam or stress ball," said Lisa Kobek, of Theraplay, an outpatient rehabilitation clinic for children with special needs located in Carmel.
"Our kiddos spend 20 minutes on the back of the horse to improve cognitive ability, body movement, organization and attention levels. The remainder of the session is spent in a traditional physical or occupational therapy environment."
A relatively new form of treatment, the cost for equine-assisted therapy can be expensive. While organizations like Theraplay accept traditional medical insurance and Medicaid with a doctor's prescription, others do not.
However, scholarships may be available for income-eligible participants. Call ahead for details on pricing, programs, schedule and space availability.