Therapy Horses

Horses are the second most popular animal used in assisted therapy programs (dogs are the first). The actual term for horse therapy is “hippotherapy,” from the Greek word hippo, meaning horse.

Physical, occupational, and speech therapists use hippotherapy to help their clients with motor skill disabilities and speech delays. Hippotherapy is a form of therapeutic riding. Clients are placed on horses in a controlled environment — usually in a riding ring with a trainer. The purpose of interacting with horses is to improve one's sensory skills and neurological functions.

Why are horses good for therapy?

A horse's gait is rhythmic and repetitive. The horse's movement is much like our own. The pelvis moves in the same manner. Plus, riding a horse improves balance, posture, and mobility. Hippotherapy has been around for a long time; however, with the increase of autism and other disabilities, and the positive effect of these treatments, more and more hippotherapy centers are opening.

In addition to working with autistic persons, hippotherapists work with people diagnosed with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, developmental delays, traumatic brain injury, stroke, depression, psychological problems, and learning and language delays. The work can be quite moving on an emotional level.

“You see so many miracles when you pair a rider with a horse,” says Lisa Gatti, owner of Pal-O-Mine Equestrian, a nonprofit therapeutic horseback riding program that teaches individuals with disabilities how to ride and compete.

Gatti founded Pal-O-Mine in 1995. She grew up riding horses in Long Island, and loved everything horse-related. She knew at a young age that she wanted to work with horses, and she also wanted to work with special needs children. Her mom was a special education teacher.

After attending Mary Washington College in Virginia and then going for her teaching degree at St. Joseph's College in Long Island, she taught an at-risk population of emotionally disturbed children. She really liked working with these kids. Still she missed being around the horses.

While working as a teacher, she started Pal-O-Mine, and had many of her students help her. Many of the kids in her classroom spent their afternoons training as volunteers instead of joining gangs. “The work made them feel extremely worthwhile,” she says. “These are the kids that fall through the cracks. They're good kids who just needed to succeed. They were able to do that by helping me at Pal-O-Mine.”

What is the difference between hippotherapy and therapeutic riding?

In hippotherapy, a physical therapist, occupational therapist, or speech therapist works with a patient on a horse to improve motor skills and speech. In therapeutic riding, a certified therapeutic riding instructor is teaching a special needs person how to ride. Both have beneficial effects on the rider.

Gatti combined her special education background with her riding background and created an academic curriculum that incorporates the subjects of Character Education and Cowboy Ethics. Her husband is a former cowboy, and he often helps Gatti with her work. She describes Cowboy Ethics as a form of self-respect and respect for others. Her curriculum is used in several classrooms in New York.

While practicing how to ride and how to care for the horses, the students learn about patience, building trust, and self-esteem. Gatti has five full-time staff members and 150 volunteers running Pal-O-Mine. She and her staff put in long hours and are able to get by on what they earn. “Living on Long Island can be difficult,” she says. “Average salaries for my full-time staff are $25,000 a year.”

She writes a lot of grants to keep Pal-O-Mine in the black. She just applied for and received a grant for $143,000. In addition to paying a mortgage for the land, needing funds for upkeep of the property, and paying her staff and herself, taking care of the horses can be expensive.

Feeding, medicines, vaccinations, health supplements, veterinary bills, farrier bills (horses need their hoofs checked and trimmed at least every six weeks), dental bills, riding equipment, and insurance for her riders can get expensive. When it all adds up, it can easily cost up to $1,500 per horse per year.

“This is something you really should want to do,” says Gatti. “I enjoy my work because I'm around wonderful people and, of course, I get to be around horses. I also see so many positives each day from our clients.”

One aspect of Pal-O-Mine that sets it apart from other therapeutic riding stables is that Gatti and her staff host competitions between people with disabilities and able-bodied riders. “If you can sit on a horse, it doesn't matter if you are blind or have cerebral palsy, autism, a speech delay, or are able-bodied; on a horse you are equal in riding abilities,” she says. “So we hold competitions. Many of our riders have competed elsewhere, and won too. It's so encouraging watching a competition. Our riders have goals — to overcome and/or manage their disability and to compete.”

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