Pre-school aged students with special needs at Smyrna Elementary School in Delaware are saddling up for a unique type of therapy – therapeutic horseback riding.
Assisted riding programs are sometimes recommended for kids with cerebral palsy because it has been shown to help build core muscle strength. The behavioral effects of therapeutic riding programs on children with autism, Down syndrome and ADHD are less-well understood, but parents whose kids are in the program are believers.
“This is the only time he actually sits still for 15 to 20 minutes, without moving, without jumping, without banging, it’s the only time he actually sits down and focuses, while he’s on the horse,” said Cheryl Borrelli, of her five-year-old son Colton. Borrelli said he has a genetic disorder that makes it hard for him to focus, but when he is on a horse, it’s a whole different story.
“There’s just some connection between him and the horse, it’s something that he feels comfortable, relaxed, at ease,” Borrelli said.
One afternoon a week for four weeks, Colton and his classmates, most with a variety of developmental disorders, integrate traditional therapy activities meant to improve coordination and body awareness with horseback riding. They place rings over their arms and the horse’s ears, select objects out of a bucket and identify them, ride backwards. They also follow voice commands from therapists and high school volunteers on hand.
Smyrna school district occupational therapist Susan Jacobs raised funds from private sources and the school board to start the program this school year.
“Unlike my therapy room that I have a lot of bells and whistles in, the children actually are more motivated to work when they’re on top of the horse,” Jacobs said. “They’re more apt to follow directions, they’re more apt to communicate and use their words … and they are just much calmer.”
Jacobs said the time spent on horseback translates into improved behavior in the classroom.
“The kids talk about riding all week long,” Jacobs said. “They’re so excited to go riding, they want to be really good all week long so they get to go.”
Jacobs said teachers also notice improvement in eye-hand coordination and bilateral integration — using the left and right sides of the body together. That helps with using scissors, coloring, and writing practice.
Sensory integration therapy on horseback
The riding program is based on the principles of sensory integration therapy, an intervention that helps kids who have trouble processing information about their body and the world around them.
“Anybody who has difficulty processing and integrating sensation is likely to have difficulty with other things as well, such as balance, coordination, many of these children have difficulty focusing their attention,” said Roseann Schaaf, professor and vice chair in the Department of Occupational Therapy at Thomas Jefferson University. “So if there’s some reason that an individual isn’t processing and integrating sensation at the level … that they should be, then this kind of therapy will help.”
Schaaf said the movement of the horse and the feeling of the animal underneath the child’s body gives the brain additional sensory information about where the body is. That strengthens the map of the body in the brain, which can improve coordination and balance.
She said sensory intervention therapy also helps improve the brain’s ability to filter out extraneous information.
“The sensory input that the child is getting is helping the brain to be able to what we call modulate sensation — what’s important , what’s not, how much do I need,” Schaaf said. “When the brain gets that experience, though neuroplasticty, when they get off the horse, then they’re also more focused and regulated.”
Experts are still researching exactly what happens in the brain and to lead to these behavioral changes.
For Susan Jacobs, the beauty of therapeutic riding is how motivated kids are to participate.
“You can tell from all the happy smiles,” Jacobs said, “they don’t even know that they’re in a classroom and they just think they’re coming out to play with their best friend.”
Jacobs said she has drummed up enough funding to keep the program running for groups of kids through the spring, but she’s looking for donations to continue it next year.