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Hoosier offers horse rides to aid challenged children
Indiana Correspondent

CARMEL, Ind. — The term “work horse” has lost its meaning on most farms, where horses are kept in snug barns and loved as pets. Out-of-work horses may soon find a new vocation, offering help to children with neurological impairment.

The requirements of the working horse are strict: it must be low-backed, even-tempered and calm amidst childish temper tantrums, and it must go through a period of training.

After all of that, the horse must also pass a 30-day trial period to go to work for The Children’s TherAplay Foundation, Inc. in Carmel, Ind., a northern suburb of Indianapolis.

In an arena, six therapy horses walk about with generally happy children on their backs for 15-20 minute sessions.

“Most of the children don’t want to leave,” said Sarah Schmitt, hippotherapy clinical specialist at TherAplay. “At first most are hesitant (to try the horse), but only one child since I’ve been here didn’t transition. (Our customers) come here because they want the benefit of the horse.”

A wide variety of diagnoses are treated at the clinic, including autism, cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, developmental delay, sensory integrative dysfunction, learning or language disabilities, traumatic brain injury, genetic disorders, spinal cord injuries and attention deficit.

TherAplay is a nonprofit pediatric outpatient rehabilitation clinic that offers all of the standard physical therapy, plus hippotherapy. The clinic has a staff of professionals experienced in how to handle horses and children with special needs together.

“The horse is another treatment tool. It is not a therapy in itself. ‘Hippotherapy’ comes from the Greek word, ‘hippo,” for horse,” Schmitt explained.

Many of TherAplay’s 150 clients, ranging in age from 18 months and up, don’t know all of that, but they probably don’t care.

They might give a “hippo-hurray” anyway for the horses and the benefits they achieve.

Newly certified in hippotherapy – the only one to do so in Indiana – Schmitt has seen rapid improvement for children once they begin the hippotherapy.

How Does It Work?
Why hippotherapy works is not a mystery, Schmitt said.

The horse’s gait stimulates the nervous system in humans that ride them, Schmitt said.

“All of our kids have neurological problems. The pelvis on the horse is similar to the human pelvis. When they sit on the horse, they respond to the walking gait pattern,” Schmitt said.

“When the horse takes a step, it gives that rhythmic input up through the child. The walking rhythm calms their sensory systems.”

Pairing horses with people who have neurological problems is a new treatment option, reaching U.S. shores some 30 years ago and only gaining a level of acceptance in the past five years, Schmitt said.

Despite its relatively new approach, this form of physical, occupational, or speech therapy has been documented and researched, Schmitt said.

“Hippotherapy is the only tool in pediatrics treatment that has been researched. It is not experimental,” she said.

However, the medical community remains skeptical and continues to believe it is experimental, Schmitt said.

The cost of therapy is $180 per treatment hour at the clinic.

Depending on the plan, it can be covered by insurers. Schmitt said that because of the expense, TherAplay’s fundraising program can sometimes help cover what insurance does not.

Schmitt is concerned that the public understands the complexity of hippotherapy and that it is not something to be attempted by amateurs.

“It’s something you have to be educated on. There are a lot of safety precautions, and you have to understand the medical side. It’s more than just putting a child on a horse,” she said.

Schmitt has her own horse and grew up with Arabians on her dad’s farm. She is one of only 50 practitioners nationwide.

“I first heard of hippotherapy in school when I was studying physical therapy. When I learned I could put horses and teaching together, I thought, ‘How fun would that be.’”

This farm news was published in the March 22, 2006 issue of Farm World.