Hippotherapy: Walking with horsesMarch 28, 2017
By LEANN BURKE
JASPER — Charlotte Bradley of Ferdinand, 6, stood in the stirrups on Cowgirl’s back and reached to place a black magnet on a metal frame on the barn wall at Freedom Reins Therapeutic Riding Center’s facility. When she sat back down, she road Cowgirl to the other side of the arena, stood and stretched again to place a white clip on another frame. For Bradley, riding Cowgirl and sticking the magnets is play; but for physical therapist Carrie Smith, the activity is a vital part of Bradley’s treatment.
Smith specializes in hippotherapy, a treatment method that uses horses like Cowgirl to replicate pelvic movement in patients and strengthen their core to develop everyday movements. Smith has worked in the physical therapy field for 17 years. She specializes in working with children with intellectual disabilities and in hippotherapy as a treatment plan. In Smith’s opinion, hippotherapy is the best way to help special needs patients develop the core strength they need to sit up straight, use their arms and legs and even speak.
“They have very unique learning needs,” Smith said. “If you have them in a clinic or in the school system, I feel limited sometimes. I can only motivate them so much to participate. But when you bring the horse into it, they don’t think that they’re working hard. To them, it’s much more than that. It’s the relationship they have with the horse; the smells of the barn; the soft sensation of the horse’s hair; the warmth of the horse’s body; and all that movement. Meanwhile, what I’m working on is their actual life skills.”
Hippotherapy works because a horse’s pelvis moves the same way a human’s does — in three dimensions. When a patient rides the horse, the horse’s movement moves the patient’s pelvis as if the patient were walking. With each step, both the horse’s and rider’s pelvis moves up and down, front to back and side to side. In the patient, that movement activates the sensory system and helps the brain write new neuropathways. In one half-hour session, a patient gets the equivalent of 2,000 to 3,000 steps, Smith said.
“That cannot be replicated by anything on the ground,” Smith said. “That’s why I’m passionate about it.”
Bradley’s father, Chuck, attests that hippotherapy works. Charlotte suffers from Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects physical, cognitive and speech development. Charlotte first began hippotherapy a few years ago, but began with Smith last year. Chuck said the therapy has made a huge difference for his daughter.
“It really kicked her speech into high gear,” he said. “It seems like it gets everything working a little better in her body.”
Charlotte was one of Smith’s first patients at her private practice, Great Heights Physical Therapy. Smith opened her practice last fall in a space on Bob Ruxer’s farm, the same area Freedom Reins uses. Smith was working as a therapeutic riding instructor for Freedom Reins when she decided it was time to open her practice. She talked to Freedom Reins founder Ron Thyen about using some of the nonprofit’s resources. Since hippotherapy and therapeutic riding have a common goal— helping special needs individuals through horses— the two worked out an agreement. Smith’s office is attached to one of Freedom Reins’ barns, and she uses Freedom Reins’ horses, particularly Cowgirl. Since Freedom Reins’ horses are used in therapeutic riding lessons, they’re used to be around people with special needs and have the calm temperament Smith is looking for. Still, Smith has to be picky about the horses she uses. Unlike in therapeutic riding where riders will sit upright on the horse the whole time, Smith might have her patient lie down, crouch on all fours or stand on the horse’s back. Not every horse can handle all that movement, or the three people — Smith and two volunteers — it takes to ensure the patient’s safety. Even the most mild tempered horses need a break, Smith said, so she takes the winter months off. It gives the horses a chance to rest and allows her time to catch up on paperwork and recruit more volunteers. Without the volunteers, Smith can’t do her work.
“What I get from insurance doesn’t really cover my costs, you know, so that being said, I have to rely on volunteers as well to be able to provide this service,” Smith said. “Without volunteers, there would not be hippotherapy either.”
Each session takes two volunteers — one to lead the horse and the other to walk alongside the patient opposite Smith for safety. Jan Luker started volunteering with Smith last year, and she returned this year to help again. For her, it’s a way to give back through her passion for horses.
“Meeting the kids and seeing what (Smith) does is amazing,” Luker said. “I learn a lot.”
Right now, Smith has enough volunteers to see eight patients. If she can find more volunteers, she said, the patients are out there.
“Not a lot of people have chosen (hippotherapy) to get training in,” Smith said.
Running Great Heights has been a challenge for Smith. As the only one on staff, she has to manage the marketing, business strategies and insurance billing, all of which take her out of her physical therapy comfort zone. But she’s determined to make it work. She’s known since the age of 12 she wanted to use horses to help people, and chose hippotherapy as that way as soon as she learned about it in physical therapy school. She’s put countless hours into learning horsemanship skills — she didn’t grow up with horses — and earning hippotherapy certificates. For her, Great Heights has been decades in the making.
“I feel like it’s my dream come true for me to be able to combine my horsemanship skills and passions and love with helping people with disabilities get stronger and walk better and be more independent,” she said. “It’s what I’m meant to do.”
Smith is looking for volunteers to help as horse leaders or side walkers. She can be reached at 812-216-7086.
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