Tue | Dec 18, 2018

Hippotherapy works for autism

Published:Sunday | May 1, 2011 | 12:00 AM
A young man with autism having fun on horseback during a hippotherapy session.

Christopher Serju, Sunday Gleaner Writer

Danish Athlete Liz Hartnel's accomplishment in winning back-to-back silver medals at the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games sparked the use of horseback riding as therapy, eventually leading to the development of hippotherapy.

More than 50 years later, another woman, Jamaican Terri-Anne Samuels, is trying to get hippotherapy accepted as an effective means of therapy. The positive response she anticipated upon returning home armed with a doctorate in physical therapy from the Nova South Eastern University in Fort Lauderdale has been slow in coming, but like Hartnel, she is determined to succeed.

Today, hippotherapy is widely accepted as a form of physical, occupational, and speech therapy in which the movements of a horse are used to provide carefully graded motor and sensory input to the patient.

"Horseback riding is the only non-invasive form of care that mimics how your pelvis - hip area - moves during the normal gait process. The way your pelvis goes forward, backward, and from side to side is mimicked when you are sitting astride the horse. So I put you to sit on a horse, which is not that complicated, then if you have a posture problem with sitting up, I can have the two side riders on either side to support the child or adult in sitting and still get the pelvic impact."

great treatment

Hippotherapy, which is derived from the Greek word hippos, which means horse, refers to treatment or therapy which is aided by a horse. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, Samuels, with the help of Meg Phillips in the capacity of handler, and two side riders, conducts sessions with children, some of whom are autistic. However, it is also used to treat a number of other conditions, including cerebral palsy or spina bifida, or other such defects involving the spine.

"My clients tend to have a lot of gait disturbances. Some can walk, some cannot, some have the ability to learn it over time to some degree, with or without assistance, but this will help give them an extra jump because horseback riding - hippotherapy - is rhythmic and repetitive. So we have constant rhythm. That's how your body is moving naturally, and it's repetitive, so it reinforces itself over and over again so your brain learns.

"What you find is that every time the horse walks and steps down, they (riders) get that vibration, that deep-seated vibration from head to toe. So the child with autism with increased or decreased sensation throughout their body or a combination, they get the sensory feedback in a rhythmic, repetitive way that their body gets to analyse and their body gets to understand."

increasing attention span

"If you have a child, and, say their attention span is two minutes, we ride for a minute and then do a one-minute activity, and then each time, we add 30 seconds. By the end of it, we have increased each bout of attention from two minutes to three minutes, and with time, we can go riding for 10 minutes straight without needing to stop."

The Sunday Gleaner got the chance last Wednesday to sit in on one of Samuels' hippotherapy sessions at the Caymanas Estate in St Catherine and found it quite instructive. Her insistence on small things - such as ensuring that the child gave verbal commands to the horse, repeating instructions as many times as necessary until the client obeyed - we found puzzling, but the physical therapist set us straight.

"I always say to parents, 'Learning is not only hearing a command. It's hearing, understanding it, and following through'. So if I say to you, 'Catch the ball', but you hug yourself, or if I say 'Catch the ball' and you see the child deliberately turn away, you know there's a problem."

Samuel's love for her job is evident as she speaks. When not involved in hippotherapy, she is involved in aquatic therapy, using water in a therapeutically designed pool to help children and adults with all types of disorders.

photo by Christopher Serju