Horses with Jobs: Therapy Horses

By Margaret Evans

Job Description: Therapy horses are used in a range of programs to promote physical improvements and address mental health issues.

Somewhere in the rolling high country plains of southeastern Montana in the early 2000s, a buckskin colt was born. But in the harsh reality of life in a wild herd, he lost his dam when he was just a few days old. Somehow he stayed attached to his band struggling to survive but, without his mother’s milk, his growth was slow. As a yearling, he was captured and circumstances took him first to a ranch in Saskatchewan and then to Abbotsford, BC, where physiotherapist Judy Todd, who had training in hippotherapy and was working with special needs children, acquired him in 2004. The little orphan colt became known as ‘Bo.’

“Because of his wild, orphan Mustang background, with very little human intervention, he came to me with a clean slate so I was able to ease him into his job using natural horsemanship built around trust,” says Todd. “He’s smart enough to dumb down for the hippotherapy sessions and keep his strong personality under his belt.”

Todd said that Bo was named Botox by a small boy who was undergoing Botox injections for his tight cerebral palsy muscles in the mistaken belief that riding such a wide horse would reduce his need for further injections. What made Bo special was that he was so quiet. He watched and learned, even when exposed to bubbles and balloons. 

Physiotherapist Judy Todd describes therapy horse Bo as “completely bombproof,” able to tune out noise and unexpected movements. Photo courtesy Judy Todd, Abbotsford Physiotherapy.

“Psychologically, Bo is completely bombproof, tuning out all the noise, unexpected movement like a seizure or a child having an arm-and-leg flapping melt-down, or the feeling of a child’s body part in unusual places,” she says. “Physiologically, Bo’s movement provides a calming effect for an anxious child, and a more stable base for potentially risky positions such as four-point kneeling and side-sitting. His short stature (14:1 hands) and dorsal stripe as an alignment reference are an asset. Even his long mane [is ideal] for hiding toys, or attaching ribbons or clothes pins for fine motor skills.”

Todd said that the horse’s barrel provides a dynamic treatment surface where the rider can be placed in different positions in order to stimulate specific muscles and cognitive/sensory systems.

“This multidimensional movement simulates normal human gait and trunk/pelvis function. Each horse provides different amounts of human rotation, lateral tilt, vertical and horizontal displacement. The horses in my program are assessed annually, and their movement graded out of 10. Bo scores higher on rotation and lateral displacement, which stimulates the vestibular system and unlocks a tight pelvis.”

Therapy horses help challenged children improve their confidence, endurance, balance, and coordination. Photo courtesy Judy Todd, Abbotsford Physiotherapy.

Bo works two afternoons a week for two hours. His warm-up may include a dressage session to improve the quality of his movement, or a run on the trails to let him express himself before the children arrive.

“He’s currently working simultaneously with a mare that he’s not usually turned out with, so I get them comfortable standing beside each other. He’s tacked up with bareback pads or sheepskins, depending on the needs of each rider, and long-lined for most of the session, as that improves his movement. He parks himself at the mounting block and stands perfectly still for however long it takes to get the rider organized on board. Hippotherapy is mostly done at a walk, although occasional trots are thrown in as a reward for the kids and to challenge their core stabilizers. At some point in each session we leave the arena for a trip to the creek, field, or one of the sensory integration areas. As soon as their work is done, the horses are fed, even if it’s not exactly their mealtime, so I get to say thank you immediately.

“Bo is also used to transition some of the higher functioning kids into independent riding, and all the horses pull their weight with the annual riding camp.”

Photo courtesy Judy Todd, Abbotsford Physiotherapy.

The hippotherapy experience helps challenged children improve their confidence from gaining better speech/communication, endurance, balance, and coordination. Todd says they also learn structure; each session lasts an hour and their session is on a certain day or at a certain time. 

“One little non-verbal girl placed her boots and riding helmet at the back door every school day in the hope that it was her day to ride. She’s now learned to read the family calendar, and the family doesn’t trip over her boots every day.”

Photo courtesy Judy Todd, Abbotsford Physiotherapy.

This article was originally published in Canada’s Equine Guide 2017, a publication of Canadian Horse Journal. 

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