Horses play a key role in this movement. Hippotherapy, derived from the Greek word “hippos” for “horse,” is a treatment strategy used by physical, occupational, and speech and language therapists in a one-to-one treatment session. It may be used to help those from as young as 18 months to adults with developmental delays, brain injuries, learning disabilities, sensory issues, autism and other challenges.
There’s also therapeutic riding, supervised by a certified instructor, in which children work on social, emotional and physical goals as they learn to sit properly in the saddle, use reins to command the horse, and ride at a walk and then a bouncy trot.
Eight-year-old Rose does hippotherapy at GallopNYC . When the Brooklyn girl was diagnosed at 3 with mild sensory processing issues and low muscle tone in her hands and core, it only took one trip to the stable for her mother, Catherine, to sign her up to augment her OT and PT. Five years later, Catherine reports, “Rose is very much in control while riding a horse. Usually a very floppy girl, she sits straight as a door while riding. This gives her great confidence and satisfaction.” Even better: the joy Catherine sees in her daughter’s face when she interacts with the horses: “She cares deeply about the animals, more so even than other humans.”
A sense of mastery is also very valuable to kids with diagnoses such as reactive attachment disorder, bipolar, cognitive learning disorders, and autism, says Michael Kaufmann, director of farm and wildlife at Green Chimneys, a therapeutic day school and residential treatment center in Putnam County, New York. “It feels awesome when a horse starts listening to you,” he notes. “A 1,500 pound horse is actually going where you want it to go, you can tell your parents, and most of your friends haven’t done it.”
But working with horses also teaches kids discipline. “There is a lot of frustration tolerance to learn,” Kaufmann says. “You have to earn a certain level of trust and listen to adult instructions. In the barn, there are clear rules and codes of behavior. It’s three scoops of grain, not two, not four.”
Back on Long Island, mom Elizabeth Mullen says the simple acts of brushing and tacking horses have alleviated daughter Bailey’s OCD. “That touch has already calmed her down,” Mullen says of her 11-year-old. “It used to take two hours for her to fall asleep. Within three weeks of being with the horses, she was calm enough to fall asleep within a half hour.” Of course, little brother Cooper’s autism service dog Kirby “definitely helps her as well.”
While there is little research to back up the therapeutic claims of these programs, the use of animals in therapy goes back to the beginning of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud allowed his two chows, Lun and Jo-Fi, to sit in on his sessions, admitting with “complete sincerity that he often depended on Jo-Fi provide him with an assessment of his patient’s current mental status.”
Many parents don’t need to be convinced. Take Caroline, the girl who needed OT Rossi’s facility dog to get through her dental exam. Soon after, the girl received her own service dog, another black Lab named Zumi, to assist with socialization and calming. At first Zumi assumed Tippy’s place in the chair. But no longer. These days, Caroline “can go to the dentist with or without Zumi!” Jaime says. She has no doubt who to credit for this breakthrough: a wet-nosed, tail-wagging best friend named Tippy.