Occupational Therapy Assistant Students Learn How Horses Provide Therapy
Students from the occupational therapy assistant program at Kent State University at East Liverpool arrived at the stables in Berlin Center on a warm fall afternoon. They were greeted by Dawn Speece, who quickly led five horses from a pasture into the barn and to their individual stalls.
Wasting no time, she instructed the Kent State students to water and feed the horses, then to begin grooming them.
While most of the students had little to no experience with horses, they never hesitated and went right to work. The one-on-one time spent with each horse helped establish an important level of comfort and familiarity between animal and human. Each task was intentional, with a purpose.
On this particular day, the occupational therapy assistant program students were fulfilling part of their pediatric clinical experience at Focus Hippotherapy, an outdoor equestrian facility that treats children with a variety of diagnoses. Speece is the owner and executive director of the facility, with more than 25 years of experience as a physical therapist.
No sooner had the horses been fed and groomed, when it was time for the students to greet the individual children who were coming to ride. Speece briefed the students about each client they would be working with that day and outlined their roles as student volunteers.
While the clients may enjoy riding the horses, she noted that the activity was intended to provide therapy with specific goals for each child.
“The overall goal is always to improve their ability to function and relate in daily life,” Speece says.
The Kent State students spent the afternoon with different clients, riding different horses in a fenced arena. They walked alongside the horses, providing support when needed and constant encouragement, while being directed by Speece on specific techniques to help each client. A trained leader leads the horse around the arena.
What is Hippotherapy?
According to the American Cerebral Palsy organization, hippotherapy is a form of physical, occupational and speech therapy that uses horse movement to develop and enhance neurological and physical functioning by channeling the movement of the horse. The patient’s neuromuscular development is “enhanced when their body makes adjustments to the gait, tempo, rhythm, repetition and cadence of a horse’s movement” (www.cerebalpalsy.org).
Hippotherapy comes from the Greek word “hippos,” meaning horse, and is defined as treatment with the help of a horse.
Speece explained that she helps treat clients with not only cerebral palsy, but also spina bifida, autism and other disorders. Most of her clients are children, but she has treated adults recovering from strokes, hip replacement, dementia and other conditions.
Kent State East Liverpool has partnered with Focus Hippotherapy for the last three years as part of the students’ pediatric rotation.
“The students rotate through six different sites that offer services or therapy to children,” explains Nina Sullivan, academic fieldwork coordinator for the occupational therapy assistant program at Kent State East Liverpool. “The sites are very different from each other and provide students with a picture of where occupational therapy assistant program’s practice, and the types of therapy available for children that they might not otherwise get a chance to see.”
Occupational therapy student Andreea Lang says that she found this particular clinical site interesting and that the hippotherapy helped her see the importance of movement for a person.
“We learn about this in class,” she says. “But to see it in action is always mind-blowing. Most of the kids who go there do not move in the same ways we do; some don’t even walk. Horseback riding provides the same movements to the body as normal walking, which, in turn, provides the body with the exercise it needs and gives those kids a sense of ‘moving normal.’ They don’t feel as confined as they do in their wheelchairs.”
Lang says that such clinical experiences truly enhance students’ education.
“There are numerous ways to treat children with developmental disabilities,” she says. “It’s hard to learn about everything in the short period that we are in school. I think it is great that we are introduced to the variety of facilities providing care. We can be aware of what is out there and be better therapists for our patients.”
Student Mindy Mayer agrees. “This nontraditional occupational therapy site opened my eyes to the limitless creativity that can be used when treating children and adults,” she says.
Aside from Speece, Focus Hippotherapy has one paid employee (who just happens to be a physical therapist and an experienced “horse person” who works as a leader with the horses in the arena). The facility operates as a nonprofit organization, and all patients are self-pay. Volunteers are vital to its operation.
“Volunteers need a servant’s heart,” Speece says. “It helps to have some experience with horses, but it is not required. We offer training in the spring, which is helpful, but not mandatory. Volunteers under age 12 need adult supervision.”
She explained that each therapy session is 30 minutes long, for a period of six weeks. Volunteers are needed for 32 half-hour slots during the summer sessions and for up to 16 half-hour slots for the fall sessions
Sullivan says that several Kent State students have continued as volunteers following their class requirements. One student, Stacy Cappitte, has volunteered for many years – even before Kent State began sending students there. Another volunteer is Olivia (Gessler) McCullough who graduated from the program in 2013 and was volunteering on this particular day.
“The working relationship with Kent State East Liverpool is a good two-way street with students providing invaluable help, while learning about handling techniques and the value of our program to the clients,” Speece notes.
Speece explains that the facility came about through her love of horses and her work as a physical therapist.
“I always loved horses, and when I got my first one – at age 33, which was a gift for spending seven months in bed with our fourth child – I wanted to share,” she says. “I went to a course in Kellogg, Michigan, because I realized I needed more horse knowledge and then became a 4H equine advisor for many years.”
Speece says that she had been treating a 3-year-old girl with moderate/severe cerebral palsy when the idea of incorporating horseback riding occurred to her.
“The little girl hated being stretched, and I was trying to find motivation and to build a relationship with her,” she says. “I invited her and her mother to visit the barn at feeding time, where I sat her on each of the horses while they were eating.
“The next week, her outpatient physical therapist called to find out what I had done to her, since she could do things she had never been able to do before,” Speece continues, with a smile. “I sent a flier home with children the next week and started with eight students the first year.”
Over the years, Speece’s family members have been deeply involved with Focus Hippotherapy. Her daughters worked with the horses as leaders, along with her daughter-in-law. One daughter currently serves on the board as a horse and behavior specialist, another daughter is a pediatric therapist who treats clients during the summer sessions. Her sons-in-law include a lawyer, accountant and finance expert who help, as well. And, the whole family helps put up hay and maintain the facility.
Horses, of Course
Just as it takes special people to serve as volunteers at Focus Hippotherapy, it also takes special horses.
Speece explains that clients are matched with horses based on their specific needs and/or personalities. They often form bonds or have their favorites, which is essential to a successful outcome with the therapy.
For many of the children, their therapy also includes grooming the horses. They follow instructions for locating the specific brushes and tools needed for the process, and are directed through their interactions with the horses.
Focus Hippotherapy currently operates with five horses: Thunder, Vicky, Kobe, Doc and Barney.
“They are mostly show horses with fancy registered names,” Speece explains. “Their longer names are Alotta Sweet Thunder, Victory, It’s Time to Sky, Just Maybe Doc and, of course, just Barney.”
Barney is a big draft horse who can easily be described as a “gentle giant.” Kobe is a special horse in his own right: He has a permanent trach tube in his neck following a medical emergency.
Speece is currently looking for another horse because one of their long-time favorites, Kaitlynn, recently passed. Her criteria are very specific according to breeds (quarter horse, paint, gypsy vanner and perhaps a draft horse – if it meets all other criteria), age (3 to 7 years old), height (15 to 16.1 hands, or just about 5 feet tall) and gender (preferably a gelding; would consider a mare with the right personality).
But, the must-haves include a horse that is calm, gentle, not easily spooked, can be hauled, can be clipped, tied and bathed – a 100 percent sound horse. The horse must be able to trail ride alone or with a group; have excellent ground manners; be safe for beginner riders; can be ridden with a saddle or bareback; is willing to learn; is tolerant; and can be introduced to obstacles.
“For the right horse, we will be a lifelong home with light work, trail riding, hippotherapy and teaching our kids to ride,” Speece says.