COLUMBUS — When 5-year-old Eddie Arlt got "caught being good" at school several weeks ago, his mother Stacy Arlt could hardly believe his change in behavior.
“That is not something I had planned on him getting this year,” she said. “It was cause for celebration.”
Eddie has been diagnosed with several disorders — ADD, ADHD and executive function disorder — that affect his behavior, as well as his speech and language function. Two years ago, Arlt enrolled him in speech-language therapy that incorporates hippotherapy that she credits, at least in part, for his transformation. She is so convinced of its benefits that even during a time when her insurer quit covering his sessions, she paid for them out of pocket.
“He’s a very smart kid, but he couldn’t communicate,” she said. “Before, he communicated more with actions than words. Now, he’s using more words than actions.”
Hippotherapy (“hippo” derives from the Greek word for “horse”) refers to the use of the movement of a horse as a treatment strategy for physical, occupational and even speech-language therapy.
With more than 40 years of history to back it up, the technique is recognized by the American Physical Therapy Association, the American Occupational Therapy Association and the American Speech and Hearing Association.
It differs from “therapeutic” riding, which is aimed at improving riding skills or quality of life for individuals with special needs.
“It’s not about riding, it’s about the movement they’re getting from the horse,” said Chrissy Daly, Eddie’s therapist.
She serves as a speech and language pathologist for the Stillwater Sweet Grass Educational Cooperative and uses hippotherapy in her private business Daly Communication Speech-Language Therapy. Daly has six years’ experience in speech and language pathology and first worked with horses in therapy a decade ago during college. Her focus includes autism spectrum disorders, which she said, "is one disorder that often sees many benefits from hippotherapy because of the sensory component."
The theory behind hippotherapy, Daly said, is that some children need a consistent pattern of motion, which seems to transfer from the horse to the human during sessions.
The movement not only helps develop greater postural strength and control for the child, but it helps with sensory-processing issues and motor planning.
“With hippotherapy, we’re trying to help build the sensory and physical systems and when those are functioning more cohesively, you can target goals for speech and language,” she said.
During a session in mid-November, Eddie climbed onto Becky, a carefully selected "bombproof," 13-year-old mustang mare Daly uses for hippotherapy.
Becky’s well-balanced gait makes her an ideal horse for hippotherapy, she explained. With two volunteers walking alongside the boy on the horse, Daly challenges Eddie to recite the alphabet, count by tens and reach back to touch Becky’s tail. She interrupts her instructions frequently to challenge Eddie’s physical and mental flexibility.
Daly follows up the half-hour mounted session with more traditional speech and language therapy, part of which includes work on an iPad.
The maximum benefit comes while riding, but the benefits often linger for some time after, Daly said.
“It’s about developing skills that will transfer into other environments,” she said. “Clients don’t always have access to the horse’s movement, so hopefully they gain the needed skills to use in other contexts.”
Hippotherapy is one tool among many for making therapy sessions more effective, Daly said. Because each child is unique, she uses Becky on a case-by-case basis. In fact, sometimes the child never rides at all.
“The animal connection is still there,” she said. “Sometimes they talk to the horse and not to you.”
Daly tells of one young girl who objected to riding during one of her sessions.
“The great thing was she was able to verbalize her feelings where previously she was not able to express that,” Daly said.
Another child exhibited remarkable progress, speaking more after a one-hour session of hippotherapy than he had spoken over the span of his life.
“Of course, you don’t always see that,” Daly said, “But you tend to get more responses, more participation, more clarity and more use of language. The theory is that it heightens brain function which allows for an increase in communication and connection to others.”
As a lifelong equestrian, and as someone who enjoys working with children, Daly is pleased to see the benefits of combining her two loves. She has worked with children as young as 2 up through early adolescents. Because she has access to an indoor arena, she can maintain continuity year-round, which can help achieve a client’s goals.
“After two years of hippotherapy, Eddie is able to interact more and communicate better, Arlt said. His behavior has improved both at school and home and his mother said he’s never left (therapy) not having had a good time.”
“He’s still a boy, but it helps me to work with him,” she said, offering a word of advice for other parents. “If kids are questionable at a young age, throw them on a horse and see what happens.”