Can Equine Therapy aka Hippotherapy help your Syngap patient?

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Erica Brown is a Resource Development Coordinator to an Alabama based nonprofit, providing applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy to disenfranchised children through residential, preschool, and clinic facilities. For the past 6 years, she has specialized in grant writing and fundraiser planning, providing support to allow the organization to continue to grow, reaching more children. Her daughter was diagnosed with Syngap1 in 2015, at the age of 5 years old. She has since dedicated her life to promoting Syngap awareness and educating other families on the navigating the processes and knowing what is available for their child. She trains and provides a second career to retired thoroughbred racehorses from across the nation. She is a competitor representing Alabama in the Retired Racehorse Project each year in Kentucky at the Kentucky Horse Park. She successfully competes in Eventing and provides lessons to students in all disciplines.

Equine therapy has helped many SYNGAP1 families

When a parent thinks of therapy, the first thing that most likely enters their mind are the basics: physical, occupational, and speech therapy in a clinic setting. For the longest time, I did focus on the basics, and was later shocked at what we were missing out on for the first few years of Claira’s life. Who knew the HORSE could be providing her therapy? 

For the past 35 years, I have competed successfully in eventing and show jumping. Horses have always been a part of my world, weaving themselves into every aspect of my life, including work and even my college degree. After having Claira Beth, my Syngapian, I never imagined this personal obsession would be something that would change her world as well. 

What Makes a Horse Such a Great PT Partner?

The horse pelvis shares the same natural three-dimensional planes as a human pelvis. In short, the horse pelvis movement is the closest to a natural movement of the human pelvis, creating a true fake walk for the rider. This leads to functional change. Then when you combine that movement with different gaits, speeds, and exercises, it creates a multitude of sensory and neurological inputs for our children. Core, leg, hand, cognitive, and emotional self-control are just a few of the areas this type of therapy can engage in a single lesson. 

Winston Churchill once stated, “No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.” I find that rings true when breaking down all the benefits of riding, where every second, minute, or hour is used to increase a deficit area, or bring happiness. 

There are 4 different movements in hippotherapy: Anterior/Posterior, Lateral, Rotational, and Concussive. 

– Anterior/Posterior is the forward/backward rocking motion of the rider’s hips and is important for balance to prevent future falls while walking. 

– Lateral is the side-to-side movement of the hips of the rider. This allows the rider to strengthen their core, and proprioception of the rider’s body placement in space.  

– Rotational is the actual rotational input into the hips. This helps with the physical aspect of walking, squatting down, and many other physical movements. 

– Concussive is the physical bounciness of the horse, or the up and down movement of the rider in the seat. This aid can be used to increase muscle tone in low muscle tone children. 

All these movements are taken into consideration, along with the child’s medical history, when developing specific goals for the lesson or therapy program. 

Benefits Beyond the Mechanics

Besides the obvious therapeutics from a physical aspect,, the emotional connection experienced with the horses is the most rewarding and humbling to experience. I know with Claira, the connection to nature seems to be celestial and has left me with few words at times. I have often wondered if it was due to the lack of a certain function (speech particularly in Claira’s case) that allowed someone to connect on such a deeper level with the natural world. 

Horses have always been my escape from life, grooming until the night sets, thinking of nothing but the calming sounds of the horses munching on hay, their calming breaths as they lay peacefully in their plush bedding, the smells of fresh grain and shavings, and forgetting all my worries … until the barn doors close and real life creeps back. I see that same calmness in Claira as she grooms, mounts and rides her horse. The worries of Syngap seem to leave her soul and she transforms instantaneously. We are connected at that moment, and she is my typical child that I grieve beyond the saddle. 

By far, I am not a therapist, but I am a riding instructor. After witnessing this change in Claira, I offered the simple riding lessons to the other children that attend Claira’s special needs school. The staff began to bring the children to the farm in groups of two or three to ride Claira’s horse, Patty (who is a true unicorn in every sense, an angel horse). Patty would haul them one by one around the arena, with a staff member on each side of Patty’s head and me in the center of the arena giving them direction. You could physically see the worry leave each of their bodies as they began to relax and engage with Patty. 

One child, age 12, said her first words as she rode, “Good Patty.” We wept. 

Our horses just know when a child comes in their reach. They immediately calm themselves, the child’s breathing slows, and everything seems right with the world. These are horses that I compete regularly, galloping across a field over permanent log fences. But when Claira comes in contact with them, they seem to know and they see her soul. The holistic benefits of hippotherapy by far outweigh the physical therapeutic benefits in my opinion. The calm is addictive. 

I hope our story provides you with an understanding of how horses can not only provide a therapy (speech, occupational, and physical), but they can also be an outlet for emotions. I encourage everyone to reach out to a local riding instructor or a hippotherapy farm, and let your child experience the magic of horses. You won’t be disappointed with their smile. ☺