ADVERTISING SUPPLEME Sunday Freeman Taconic Press
Page 6 - July 30 - August 3, 2006
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Horses provide therapy for special needs population
By Eileen Fay
Most people have a general understanding that close contact with certain types of animals can impart feelings of affection, happiness, even empathy. For those who have only brief en­counters, these feelings may be delightful, but evanescent. However, when well-organized programs of interaction with intelligent animals are estab­lished, the benefits are many and long-lasting.
In no circumstance is this more true than in the therapeutic work being done by the horses and people of A Horse Connec­tion. From its main base at the Southlands Foundation in Rhinebeck, A Horse Connec­tion provides a wide range of Equine Assisted Therapy pro­grams, including Hippotherapy administered by Occupational, Physical, and Speech Thera­pists.
Their clients are drawn from the various special needs popu­lations of the Hudson Valley region, including pediatric, adult, and elderly persons.
The diversity of human con­ditions that can be ameliorated through hippotherapy is aston­ishing. An incomplete list includes autism, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, stroke, multiple                    sclerosis,
ADD/ADDHD, spina bifida, visual impairment, develop­mental delay, emotional distur­bances, cognitive impairments, eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, and schizo­phrenia. Certain as-yet-unoffi-cially diagnosed disabilities, such as sensory integrative dys­function, may also be helped by hippotherapy.
There are, of course, numer­ous types of therapy programs for people with challenging life circumstances, be they physical, mental, or emotional. But there is something truly remarkable 3b0Hl equine assisted therapy. Horses have an almost magical capacity to connect with people of all abilities; and this quality brings forth a response from people with special needs that is unlike the results from any other kind of therapy, and quite inspir­ing.
For each condition being treated, there is a specific strate­gy and 360-degree monitoring by the staff and volunteers of A Horse Connection. Nancy King, the Director, is an Occu­pational Therapist, a member of the American Hippotherapy Association, the Equine Facili­tated Mental Health Associa­tion, and a certified therapist with the North American Riding for the Handicapped Associa­tion. Her staff are professionals in the fields of occupational, speech, and physical therapy. She is proud of the dedicated volunteers, too, who are thor­oughly trained to provide safety and comfort for their clients. She says that these volunteers are the key to maintaining ongo­ing service to their clients. . King has had a lifelong, inti­mate connection with horses; she loved and appreciated these magnificent, sentient beings long before she became a thera­pist.
"My memory of horses goes far back. I always had an obses­sion with them," King said. She recalls her first pony ride as a toddler was on a black and white horse, called, perhaps prophetically, "King."
Born and raised on Long Island, Nancy did not live on a farm, nor did her family own horses, although she continually wished for one. When she attended summer camps, she spent nearly all her time hang­ing around the stables; and later, at college, making time for rid­ing occasionally caused neglect of her academic work.
After college, King attended cooking school. She began a catering business in Manhattan, but missed the openness of country life, and hoped that she could one day have a permanent home for her active German shepherd and the horse she had long dreamed of. When a posi­tion as dining room chef became available at a local resort, she
and her husband, Wayne Civita, made the move to Ulster Coun­Besides her. abiding passion for horses, there was another theme that ran through King's life:
"I always thought I was sup­posed to be helping people in some way," she says. There­fore, when the resort closed, she began to train as an Occupation­al Therapist. The holistic approach, which integrates knowledge of several disci­plines, including sociology, psy­chology, and medical treatment, particularly appealed to her.
When working on her Mas­ter's Degree, King wrote her final paper on hippotherapy. ("Hippo" is literally Greek for "horse.") Then, while interning at a Rhinebeck nursing home, she met a Certified Occupation­al Therapy Assistant, Randi Carlson. Carlson had done this' type of work already and knew of its benefits.
"We connected right away," King said. Carlson had a horse of her own, so the two decided to work on riding therapy together.
Now that she was living in the country, King felt more strongly than ever that she must have her own horse at last. A kindly resident in the nursing home she worked at encouraged her not to put it off any longer, so she took the leap, and found her beloved Calli, a grulla (dark dun) mare wim a white star-swirl on her forehead. Pur­chased locally, Calli was the culmination of decades of innate desire.
"She is the Black Beauty of my dreams," King enthused.
In 2003, with her training completed, King founded A Horse Connection, intending to use horses to help people with challenges become better able to function in everyday life skills, a core purpose of occupational therapy. Because of the senso­ry-rich environment that horses create, equine assisted therapy can address areas such as fine motor skills, sensory regulation, psycho-social goals, verbal expression, physical balance, attention span, coping skills, problem solving, and memory.
While an Occupational Ther­apist at the Anderson School in Staatsburg, King often drovepast the lovely green fields of Southlands Farm on Route 9. She felt this would be the per­fect venue for a therapeutic rid­ing program. She contacted Southlands Foundation's Exec. Director, Colleen Cruikshank, and learned that the founder, Deborah Dows, had strongly intended that Southlands not be just an ordinary riding establish­ment. A therapeutic riding pro­gram was an excellent match for their mission. Connecting hors­es and humans was part of teaching love for animals in a way that benefitted both sides of the equation.
King started a pilot program for Anderson School students at Southlands; the six initial clients were autistic. They came to the stables once a week, and their therapy included walking and communicating in their own way with the horses. They brushed their coats and per­formed other tasks that improved body awareness, motor planning, directionality, self esteem, and confidence. The horse-human connection was immediate.
'The things that happened during these sessions were sub­tle but profound," King recalls. She explained how the horse's gait "is similar to the movement of walking humans," so as the students rode on their equine companions their physical coor­dination improved. This was only the beginning of the bene­ficial aspects of the horse con­nection. A set of both physical and behavioral goals was estab­lished for the students, their progress closely monitored and recorded.
People with special needs of all degrees need to feel they are mastering their environment and growing. A Horse Connec­tion provides that challenge in a
A Horse Connection
also easier to transport them. King keeps a "mini herd" of them at her home in Saugerties, ready to travel to any location for events for special needs groups, nursing homes, and schools. King's miniature hors­es were lovingly raised by local resident Anne Marie Reese. And King is fortunate in having the invaluable assistance of hus­band Wayne when it comes to the vital, albeit fragrant, chore of manure removal.
There is no longer any doubt among leading animal behav­ioral scientists that horses, as well as many other animals, are perceptive, highly sensitive thinking beings. A vital part of King's philosophy in providing her service to humans in need is her profound respect for the nature of the horses she lives with, works with, and loves. She espouses "natural horse­manship," whereby the individ­ual horse's personality is con­sidered. In common parlance, "where the horse is coming from" is essential to compre­hend in order to have the most satisfying mutual relationship. Their mental well-being is just as important as physical health.
"It's all about earning the horse's respect," she explained. "So that they want to be with you. You earn your leadership from the horse by proving you are worthy of being the leader."
This eminently sensible approach is, happily, gaining more adherents in the horse world today.
King uses this philosophy efficaciously in her therapy pro­grams; it is one of the things that makes A Horse Connection's work special. The horse is not merely a vehicle, but a true part­ner in the therapy process for client, handler, and volunteer. Parents and other therapists have been impressed with the improvements made.
Alyssa, 12 and with cerebral palsy, has.made great strides in her 2 years of therapy. Her mother, Donna Schuder, said, "She has gained a lot more head and trunk control. At the begin­ning, she wasn't able to hold herself up on the horse. Now she can hold on by herself. She is the happiest little girl in the world when she is on that horse."
It is important to note that not every riding instructor is a trained therapist. In true hip­potherapy, the aim is a function­al outcome for the client. This can be done properly only by a licensed merapist with the refer­ral of a physician. A Horse Con­nection offers three distinct ver­sions of therapy: Hippotherapy, which utilizes the horse's move­ment for occupational, physical, and speech therapy (which ser­vices may be submitted to insur­ance companies for reimburse-
ment); Therapeutic Riding, giv ing riding lessons to special needs people, with modifica­tions available when necessary; and Equine or Animal Assisted Therapy, with such activities as grooming, feeding, and leading horses, as well as fun and mean­ingful interaction with other ani­mals at Southlands, where Lenny Miller, a Board Member, houses his friendly donkeys, pigs, goats, and sheep. Miller lends great support to the whole program, enthusiastically intro­ducing the child participants to his menagerie. A recently donated pony cart will soon be included in the activities.
HITS Founder Tom Struzzieri's commitment to helping the local community is manifested in many ways, among them the donation of all gate proceeds to Family of Woodstock. He has also recog­nized A Horse Connection by inviting a Southlands "therapy horse" and King's miniature horses to participate in the excit­ing HITS event, "World of the Horse," coming up this August 6th.
Rarely, nowadays, are horses used for war, for hauling goods, for much transportation. Now, they are utilized by humans mainly for pleasure, for riding competitions, and therapy. In order to maximize benefits to horse and human clients alike, Nancy King hopes to maintain a permanent home for A Horse Connection at Southlands. It is a wonderful setting, although there are challenges. There is only one indoor riding ring, so in inclement weather, there is insufficient space to carry out all the valuable purposes the horses serve.
"Southlands have been incredibly accommodating," King declared. "However, there is only so much one space can handle."
Tfo§?e is &e pe&sibility that an historic bam on the property might be renovated, or perhaps another ring could be built. Just in case there are any philan­thropists out there looking for a worthy cause that brings togeth­er the communities of special needs persons, caring people, and some very remarkable hors­es.
Besides their regular ses­sions, A Horse Connection is available for special events and special needs parties. They can be contacted at 845-417-4646, or at www.ahorseconnection. com.
And be on the lookout for an upcoming SUNY New Paltz-filmed documentary focussing on the amazing phenomenon of Equine Assisted Therapy and Hippotherapy, showing the importance of its impact on the Hudson Valley, and featuring A Horse Connection. .
Special needs children from the mid-Huason region react posi­tively to their sessions with Annie, a miniature therapy horse, and staff from A Horse Connection.
Photos by Jan Cohn
therapeutic, fun, and safe way. While sessions are usually quite dynamic, "Sometimes, just being quiet with the horses in a session is beneficial," King noted.
An intriguing side effect of these sessions was that the hors­es themselves clearly become co-therapists. King explains that the horses, unlike humans, are not critical or judgemental.
Although the human thera­pist has to take notes and make decisions for students, the hors­es are relaxed and thus make the students feel less inhibited.
Of coirse, all the horses in these progams are very careful­ly selected for the most suitable temperament. The ones chosen are particilarly equable and gentle. Besides the full-sized horses at Southlands, King has found that niniature horses are especially will suited to therapy work, partly because their size makes them ess intimidating to people unfaniliar with horses, but also the) have a naturally calm demeanour. As.they are shorter, the miiatures can have more intimate ontact with indi­viduals in whelchairs. It is