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December 11, 2004

Challenged Kids Get Horse Medicine

From: WNBC - New York,NY,USA - Dec 11, 2004

Kids with developmental problems often need years of specialized speech, physical and occupational therapy.

It's a lot of work, especially for children who are often medically fragile. So how's it a good idea to put them on thousand-pound animals to do their therapy?

Ryan Warter, 4, was born with a wide variety of developmental issues. But he can sign and a cochlear implant has given him some hearing.

What's really unique, though, is that he is doing on a horse. It's all part of a fascinating therapy approach called hippotherapy, from the Greek word for horse. Some of the kids using the therapy have autism spectrum disorders. Max Brown has spinal muscular atrophy, related to muscular dystrophy. Others are undiagnosed.

"Land therapy can get boring," said Max's mother, Lauri Brown. "You know, 'I don't want to do this.' How many times can you do an exercise? But this is a game. It's fun."

It's called Rocking Horse Rehab, a therapy center within the Essex Equestrian Center in West Orange, N.J.

What looks like a simple riding lesson actually has profound benefits for the neuromuscular system. As the horse moves one way, the child's nervous system is stimulated and has to compensate, improving coordination and strength, especially the core posture muscles around the pelvis. And surprisingly, it even helps kids with speech issues.

"The trunk is so important because it houses the diaphragm," said Sheri Haiken of Rocking Horse Rehab. "And the diaphragm is key for respiration and vocalizations, which we need for speaking."

Ryan's mom says riding made the difference for her son.

"Getting stronger through his trunk and pelvis and those sorts of muscles and using his hands for signing," said Barbara Warter, Ryan's mother. "And that has just opened up a whole world for him."

And the benefits go both ways.

"The children help calm that horse," said Larry Hall of the Essex equestrian center. "And the horses are doing their job by calming these children."

But the bottom line is something these kids often don't get enough of.

"It's really fun because you get to, like , ride sitting backwards and sideways and sometimes you get to steer the horse," said 12-year-old Max.

At Rocking Horse, many of the kids also get conventional therapy after their hippotherapy.

They also get sensory integration by grooming a miniature pony.

Insurance covers the therapy costs for some of the kids. Others are covered by special education programs through their schools.

Rocking Horse Rehab:

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