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The Healing Power of Horses

At two years of age, Josh Brubaker was missing developmental milestones and was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy. His physiotherapist suggested hippotherapy.

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The Healing Power of HorsesPhoto: KA Davidson, Richmond Therapeutic Equestrian Centre

Josh Brubaker* is perched atop a tawny-coloured Norwegian Fjord named Beonka.

Corkscrew curls spilling out from under his navy-blue helmet, the seven-year-old holds the reins while three volunteers lead boy and pony through the spacious arena to the site of Josh’s first activity. Donna Pellerin, a 52-year-old riding therapist in worn jeans and mud-spattered boots, gives him instructions.

“What’s this letter, Josh?” She points to a wall in the arena.

“It’s K,” he answers.

“And what starts with the letter K?” she follows.

“Kangaroo or kite,” he says.

“Now tell Beonka to walk on, and whoa her at the next letter you see.”

“Walk on, Beonka,” Josh tells his companion as the two trot to the letter D.

Josh’s mother and grandparents suspected something might be wrong with him when, as a baby, he didn’t move around much in his crib or on the floor. Soon he wasn’t meeting any of his developmental milestones, like sitting up, crawling and standing. When he was late taking his first steps-which happened just before his second birthday-the family took him for an MRI exam at the Fraser Valley Child Development Centre in Chilliwack, B.C. They were told Josh had mild cerebral palsy. “The diagnosis was very hard to accept,” says Geraldine Brubaker*, Josh’s grandmother (the boy lives with his grandparents and mother, who works long shifts as a paramedic).

Pippa Hodge, his physiotherapist at the time, suggested they consider hippotherapy, which focuses on getting a horse to move in precise ways that work with the rider’s physical limits. Hodge explained that, used as a supplement to traditional therapy, it would help Josh build his core muscles.

The reason is simple: horses move a lot like humans. In fact, their gentle, rhythmic gaits would allow Josh to use muscles that would be harder to access in his traditional physio­therapy appointments. The interconnectedness goes beyond the physical. A 2013 study published in the journal Social Anthropology discovered that horses can quickly attune to physical disabilities. The phenomenon, called “co-being,” explains why horses alter their movements in response to the weight, shape and repeated actions of their riders. “Horses are lovely creatures,” says Hodge, who, for 30 years, has conducted hippotherapy workshops across Canada. “They know when they have someone on them who isn’t 100 per cent healthy.”

Equine-assisted therapy has been around since ancient Greece-injured soldiers returning from battle found riding helped their recovery-and gained prominence in the 1880s, when French doctors turned to it as a way to improve balance and joint movement. The therapy finally broke into public consciousness in Britain during the 1950s, when it became a popular method for rehabilitating polio patients and amputees.

In the last decade, however, it’s received greater attention from medical doctors. A spate of studies has shown its effectiveness when targeting the body’s larger muscles-those we rely on to walk, sit, kick, throw-in a handful of physical diseases and disabilities, including multiple sclerosis, Down’s syndrome and spinal cord injuries.

Its impact on cognitive disorders seems just as dramatic. One study, published in 2012 in Research in Aut­ism Spectrum Disorders, looked at the effects of 10 weekly therapeutic riding lessons on autistic children and discovered that they helped to significantly counter lethargy, hyperactivity and irritability.

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Erin McRae, a program manager and instructor at the Richmond Therapeutic Equestrian Society in Richmond, B.C., has found that, after 14 years at the centre, she doesn’t need to work so hard to convince clients of therapeutic riding’s value. “On our application form we ask, ‘Where did you learn of our program?’ For years, the typical response was ‘From a friend.’ In recent years, we’ve started to see ‘From our MD.'” Demand is growing. Today, more than 80 centres across the country are licensed to offer this kind of therapy through the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association. 

Josh signed up at the Valley Therapeutic Equestrian Association (VTEA) in Langley, B.C., just after his third birthday. Hodge, who practises at VTEA, created a treatment plan for him consisting of weekly 30-minute sessions and picked a series of horses whose body structures and gaits suited his condition. “Josh was put in different positions on the horse-we sat him on a bareback pad facing backwards and sideways and placed him on his knees,” says Hodge. “His arms and legs were worked out in ways that couldn’t really be duplicated off the horse.” 

The benefits could already be seen by the end of the fourth week of the 10-week session, when Josh found himself able to sit in circle time during preschool without back support.
Along with the improved balance, Josh is showing signs of being a pretty decent horseman. He sits in stirrups and can steer, both of which have strengthened his concentration. Best of all, the sessions take his treatment from a doctor’s office to a happier setting. “I don’t think Josh ever considers what he does here as therapy,” says Brubaker.  

The gentle giants at VTEA have also helped Josh talk. “He could barely manage one- or two-word sentences,” says Brubaker, explaining that the cerebral palsy had weakened the muscles around his mouth. “He would get very upset when he couldn’t tell us what he needed. He would physically drag you to where he wanted you to go.”

In tandem with the riding sessions, therapists encouraged Josh to express himself while in the saddle-any improvement in core strength leads to better breath control. Hodge and her team engaged him, for example, by asking questions such as, “Is the ball big or small?” and “What colour is the ball?”

Two years later, Josh started responding. The more he spoke, the more his confidence grew. By the time he began kindergarten, his verbal communication had advanced to five- and seven-word sentences-progress that impressed his speech-language pathologist. “I love hearing him try to repeat the Scooby Doo dialogue he picks up from the show,” says Brubaker.

Josh’s success story isn’t atypical. Seana Waldon, who has been involved with Toronto’s Community Association for Riding for the Disabled as a volunteer and staff member for 26 years, says she has witnessed clients take their first steps-one as late as eight years old-say their first words and build up enough strength to finally abandon their walking aids. Hodge talks about one client, a young teen living with chronic pain from muscle imbalance, who dreamt of striding across the stage at his high school graduation without his wheelchair. “After several years of sessions, he did exactly that,” she says.

The following week, Josh walks into the barn in a smart blue vest and black boots. He puts on his helmet, adjusts the safety belt around his waist and pauses at the loading ramp for the horse that’s been chosen for him. When a reddish-brown quarter horse gelding named Nickers is led in, Josh mounts-no help required from the volunteer-and gets started on his lesson.

As he spends more time with his equine partners, Josh’s friendly, happy personality has started to assert itself. His first conversation with a child his own age happened last year when he started chatting with a little girl about her riding that day. “He was such a little charmer,” Brubaker says.

“I’ve seen a sea change over the last two decades in what parents want from therapy for their children,” says Hodge, noting that families are willing to try alternative therapies, hoping not only for physical and cognitive changes but a social and emotional payoff, as well. She insists that skeptics need to see riders in action to fully appreciate the benefits therapeutic horses can have on kids with special needs. “There are horrendous disabilities parents have to watch their kids suffer from,” she says, “but watching a child thrive on a horse is thrilling.” 

Thirty minutes later, Josh and horse canter back. He dismounts, high-fives the volunteers and feeds Nickers an apple from the bucket. For Josh’s family, these sessions represent what he can do, instead of what he can’t. “We know he’ll never be a baseball or soccer player,” says Brubaker, “but he’ll always be able to ride.”

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.