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The Country and Abroad ♦ March 2005
To many, the words love, hope, and dreams are synonymous with horses.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes
Sharing the River, Sharing the Road and Much More
Two Non-profits Brought Together
for a Common Good
A nderson School, in Staatsburg, NY, is dedicated to providing cutting edge, quality services to their student population with autism and developmental disabilities
Just down the road, a few miles away. . . The Southlands Foundation sits on 200 acres of serene pas­ture. The smell of hay rolls down through trails that meet the Hudson River, with a backdrop of expansive mountain views. The Southlands Foundation, a non­profit organization, is a prominent symbol of equine excellence throughout the Hudson Valley.
Southland's Board of Directors has recommit­ted their focus to uphold the core values and mission put forth by its founder Deborah Dows:".. .We must concentrate on its uniqueness and not let it become just another riding stable, breeding farm, or sales barn. As the world changes we must remain the same, changing only slightly with the times but staying small, keeping our versatility of activity..."
Each day, Nancy King an occupational thera­pist, consultant to Anderson School and Director of A Horse Connection drives by Southlands on her way to the school. She would glance at the peacefully grazing horses and think what a beautiful place this would be to host her equine-assisted therapy pro­gram. She envisioned students from Anderson School and people with special needs engaging with the horses in a therapeutic, yet naturalistic environment. Along with her associate Randi Carlson, C.O.T.A., (certified occupational therapy assistant), Nancy had been seeking a special place to deliver their servic­es, expertise, and experience in this field. To their surprise and delight, upon meeting Southlands Exec­utive Director Colleen Cruikshank, they discovered that Southlands' Board of Directors had a growing interest in a therapeutic program.
As equine-assisted therapy programs thrive across the country serving special needs populations, Nancy proposed to Anderson School administrators and educators to consider the benefits such a pro­gram could offer to Anderson School students. She
described the unique contribution of horses in pro­viding a myriad of opportunities for success for special needs populations, but also for the unique challenges of effective treatment strategies for people with autism spectrum disorders.
The timing was right and the two non-profit organizations were brought together to serve a com­mon good, by setting up a pilot after-school program. By stepping outside the classroom and into the world of horses, the students and the staff that work with them experienced a fresh exciting way to address educational and therapeutic goals in a sensory rich environment of intriguing sights, sounds, smells, and touch. Aside from their obvious beauty and grace, horses have peaked people's curiosity for centuries. Their powerful, yet sensitive constitution endears them to many.They do not judge on the basis of exter­nal appearances what job a person has or what car they drive. What they do care about is comfort and kindness. For those who are helped by them, a true exchange of gratitude and appreciation emerges that is quite profound.
Nancy Osborn, Education Coordinator of Ander­son School, went full tilt forward to get support and necessary funding from the School. Enthusiastic staff from the Anderson School included teachers, teacher assistants, residential staff, administrators, and addi­tional therapists, who volunteered and were trained to fulfill their roles as horse leaders, side walkers, and assistant therapists. In addition, a number of commu­nity members, including artists, photographers, and devoted Southlands members volunteered their time. It has been truly inspiring to see community members of all ages, disciplines, and interests coming together, forming teams dedicated to providing a fun and safe program for their student/clients. Southlands provid­ed horses and ponies, screened carefully for their gentle disposition and good movement. Students were paired with their horse "co-therapists," and positive responses were evident from the start, turning a sim­ple "what if" into a rewarding reality.
Some of the initial improvements reported were seen in social interaction skills, environmental exploration, and confidence building. Sessions also incorporated hippotherapy to address more complex sensory and motor issues often seen in individuals with autistic spectrum and related disorders. Hip­potherapy, (hippos, which is Creek for horse) is performed only by occupational, physical, or speech therapists, and utilizes the horse's multi-dimensional, rhythmic movement as a treatment strategy for func­tional gains. The horse being utilized as part of therapy can be traced back to 460 BC.
More specifically, the sessions focused on pro­moting independence in a variety of activities that therapeutically challenge gross motor skills, such as balance and bilateral coordination by having the stu­dent reach towards the horse's ears, alternating, right and left ten times. Gross motor coordination is required for activities such as getting on and off the horse.The motivation to get on these "gentle giants" can be so high that students put that extra effort into motor-planning and problem-solving their way through the movement pattern. Fine motor skills are addressed, for example, when the student brushes the horse's mane and tail, buckling a saddle, holding the lead rope, and happily petting the horse's soft muzzle. The use of relevant, purposeful communication devel­oped as the students applied terms such as "Walk on" and "Whoa." One student was heard frequently saying "Walk faster, Sam." This was his way of stating his desire to have the horse "trot."
The client-centered, meaningful activities elicit enthusiastic, motivated responses that are quite dis­tinct frorn the clinical setting. The unique bond that develops between the client and horse carries treat­ment options to a new level of engagement. Experiences of success, empowerment, and inde­pendence have been reported by clients in programs around the world for a number of decades, and the applications for this therapy strategy are just scratch­ing the surface. In the case of autism, equine-assisted
The Country and Abroad ♦ March 2005
37
Muileni from Anderson School on pony at Southlands Foundation. Rhiaebeck. NY
therapy offers great promise for a condition that presents great challenge to therapists and clinicians.
Back at Southlands, the mission remained strong for "being the best in teaching of riding and horse sports and instilling in our students a respect for and love of the land and all its animals." For the stu­dents who participated in the pilot program this was not a problem. Surrounded by a team of four to five staff members, on any given session there was no shortage of love, respect, and gratitude for these amaz­ing animals. Hugs, pets, a "thank you," or a "bye-bye" from a generally non-verbal student was as big as the horses themselves. These students truly connected with their new-found horse companions.
Each participant's experiences were vastly dif­ferent on the surface. Yet, common ground was shared, and celebrated with a final day ceremony on the green fields of Southlands. Horse shoes decorated by an Anderson School class were presented as
awards to their peers in recognition of their individual achievements.Their equine companions stood quietly nearby, but were clearly stars in their own right. The smiles on the student's faces, exuberant clapping by the staff, and an occasional joyful tear told the rest of the story.
A Horse Connection is looking at ways to con­tinue offering equine-assisted therapy on a year round basis to Anderson School.They want to broaden their services to other agencies and schools throughout the community. There are challenges to meet. A commit­tee made up of community members is being formed in order to find ways to meet these challenges and realiz.e a vision that serves those in our community with a diversity of special needs.
At present, A Horse Connection offers equine-assisted therapy for individuals of all ages who are physically, emotionally, or developmentally impaired, at The Southlands Foundation, Rhinebeck, NY. Their highly trained staff includes occupational and
physical therapy. As a therapy, this service is reimbursable through many insurance companies. A Horse Connection is now accepting registration for spring sessions. In addition, they are seeking volunteers to assist in various roles. For further infor­mation, call A Horse Connection at (845) 417-4646. Mailing address: PO Box 473, Saugerties, NY.