Vol. XII, No. XVI
The Poughkeepsie Area's Award-Winning Community Newspaper
Friday, April 21, 2006
Page 15
The Weekly Beat'* Friday, April 21,2006
Horses Offer Innovative Therapy Methods
By Jeremy Schwartz
Nancy King was obsessed with horses by the time she was 5.
"I used to go on pony rides and my first pony ride was on a horse named King. Horses are very gentle creatures. They are non-judgmental and they respond back in kind. Like human beings, they seek com­fort. They are powerful and vulnerable at the same time," she said.
King has been able to share her love of horses with her emotionally, developmen-tally and physically disabled clients.
An occupational therapist, King is the director of A Horse Connection, which of­fers hippotherapy, therapeutic riding and equine-assisted therapy programs.
Hippotherapy, derived from the Greek word for horse, uses the movements of the horse to assist in physical, speech and oc­cupational therapy.
King and her team, which, besides horses, can include speech pathologists, physical therapists and other specialists, is based out of the Southlands Foundation in Rhinebeck, a not-for-profit riding and boarding facility dedicated to cultivating a love and respect for land and animals through horse riding.
Town of Poughkeepsie resident Laura Schuder brings her 12-year-old daughter, Alyssa, who has cerebral palsy, to A Horse Connection.
Alyssa is confined to a wheelchair and has made tremendous gains in her nearly two years of therapy.
"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's made a lot of progress," said Schuder. .
The psychological gains made by King's clients are as important as the physical ac­complishments.
"She loves it. Kids like Alyssa can't participate in sports and this gives them something to call their own. She's the hap­piest little girl in the world when she is on that horse," said Schuder.
King took a circuitous route to hip­potherapy. After graduating college, she worked as a chef for a time, but was unsat­isfied with her career path.
She returned to school, obtaining a master's degree in occupational therapy. Along the way, she met Randi Carlson, a certified occupational therapy assistant.
Carlson had a horse and the pair decid­ed that at some point they would link up professionally. King and Carlson are now collaborators with A Horse Connection.
King finally took the plunge and got her own horse after working in a nursing home, where several residents waxed nos­talgically about the horses they rode when they were younger. One resident in par­ticular had a major impact on King.
"One of the last things she told me was, 'Nancy, you get that horse.' That was the
defining moment for me," shi said.
King eventually moved on to work at the Anderson School ir Hyde Park, which agreed to fun( a six-week pilot program for hir. potherapy in 2004 (the school i longer has any direct affiliat with A Horse Connection).
Southlands provided the pn gram with the use of its ridinj facilities and horses, which wen screened for their gentle persor alities and rhythmic movements Southlands employees also do nated time and energy in assist! A Horse Connection.
The program was an after-school activity, and King said the benefits to the autistic students were tre­mendous.
"It's important to find innovative strategies that speak to people with autism. They become engaged. It opens up a window and they don't even realize that they are getting therapy," she said.
Many of the students were non­verbal, and King said the time with the horses gave them a unique op­portunity for social connection, in addition to physical therapy.
"They get to explore the horse. We have them walking the horse to work on motor planning and direc­tionality. (Working with the horse helps with balance, sensory input and coordination," said King.
Beth Gray, the coordinator of occu­pational therapy, physical therapy and speech at the Anderson School, volunteers with A Horse Connection. She said many autistic children who have difficulty with social interaction benefit from equine-as­sisted therapy.
"The whole occupational aspect, from grooming to tacking to riding, facilitates interaction. The horse is a benign, uncon­ditional being and often they can relate to the animals more than people," said Gray.
She added that students could take les­sons learned in the classroom and apply them in a real-life situation.
During the first portion of a typical hour-long session, clients greet and groom the horse, with the remaining time de­voted to more intensive exercises. Clients may lead the horse around obstacles in the riding area.
The rhythmic gait of the horse assists in developing coordination and, along the way, clients can move through posi­tion changes, including mounting and dis­mounting from the horse.
The obstacles, including poles and cones, are in a variety of bright colors to assist clients with visual tracking issues. Individuals with dexterity problems may
"... We give them the responsibility and space to care for animals. This is their chance to give"
-Nancy King A Horse Connection
A Horse Connection Director Nancy King guides Morgan Friel during a recent therapy session. (Photo by J. Schwartz)
work on braiding the horse's mane.
To build strength, clients can break car­rots to feed the horse. The possibilities of therapeutic sessions are limitless.
"It's integrated and interdisciplinary," said King.
A subtler dimension of equine-assisted therapy is the relationship between the cli­ent and horse. By helping to care for the horse, clients are empowered.
"People with disabilities are aware of how much they are taken care of. We give them the responsibility and space to care for animals. This is their chance to give," she said.
At a recent session, 12-year-old New Hamburg resident Morgan Friel had a smile on her face as she rode atop Scar-loey, one of A Horse Connection's equine "co-therapists."
Friel suffered a stroke as an infant, which seriously affected the right side of her body. Sophia Hsieh, Friel's mother, said she and her husband initially looked into hippo­therapy as a way to improve their daugh­ter's muscle tone, but the residual benefits have been more than physical.
"She has so much more confidence. Her alertness is improved and she is much more focused," said Hsieh.
Since leaving the Anderson School last year, King has devoted her full energies to A Horse Connection. Although more than half her clients are autistic, King and her collaborators work with the elderly and those with emotional disorders, as well.
The next challenge is raising funds. King would like to find businesses or individu­als to sponsor horses to help cover board­ing and feed expenses at Southlands.
Another major project is to build an­other indoor riding ring for use during the' winter months. King would also like to of­fer scholarships for uninsured clients.
Southlands Executive Director Col­leen Cruikshank is firmly supportive of A Horse Connection.
"For us, at Southlands, it helps to fulfill our mission and broaden our horizons. I'd like to see them stay here and grow. It's very important work," she said.
For more information on A Horse Con­nection, go to www.ahorseconnection. com or call 417-4646.