Horseback riding therapy helps children with special needs

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Horseback riding started as a physical therapy treatment for children with cerebral palsy. Then it was used for adults with polio and brain injuries. Now, we're learning how horses are being used to help children communicate.

Seven-year old Davide Cirilli has shown great progress, thanks in part to his saddled up four-legged friend, Twiz.

Davide is on the autism spectrum and he struggles to communicate, but his words come more easily at the Lansing area stable with a program called Children and Horses United in Movement.

"We use the movement of a walking horse - which is three dimensional, forward, back, side-side and rotational - and we use that to stimulate the nervous system of the person on the horse that's in the session," explains Beth Macauley, an associate professor of communication, sciences and disorders at Grand Valley State University.

She has been studying hippotherapy, or the use of horseback riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment, for 30 years. She's one of four in the country who uses the movement of horse therapy for speech therapy.

"That movement gives a framework, a repetitive, systematic, sensory input to the person on the horse that allows that nervous system to say, 'Oh, this is how it works!' and gives it the freedom to do more and to learn and grow," Macauley says.

She adds that the goal is to use the physical activity of riding the horse to help trigger strength in speech.

"This is exercise; this is core which, which is your foundation for all of the speech and language that you get," Macauley says.

When it comes to speech therapy, Macauley can take any activity that would be done in a clinic and adapt it to the back of horse.

"Plus, the person gets a relationship with these wonderful creatures, and they begin to bond and that brings out communication as well," she adds.

In the future, Macauley hopes to lead a study that focuses on the activity of a patient's brain during hippotherapy. She also hopes the therapy technique will eventually be covered by insurance companies.

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