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Fall 2002 Table of Contents
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The Ride of Her Life

By Kathy Fisher, Parent, Vanderbilt, Texas

Wearing a riding helmet and belt, my daughter Megan is grinning ear to ear. She's prepared for one of her favorite activities, riding a horse. Since the age of three weeks, Megan has spent much of her time in physical and occupational therapy. One of the most beneficial types of therapy she has experienced is hippotherapy, also known as riding therapy. Many people think of horse riding therapy as simply a child riding around an arena on horseback. For my daughter Megan, a fourteen-year-old multi-handicapped child with low muscle tone, riding therapy has changed her life.

Riding for Megan began at age three. Not able to control her upper body or hold up her head, she resembled a rag doll. She required an adult to ride behind her. This back-rider was responsible for keeping Megan's body in an upright position. Riding was physically hard on her and as a result, she cried for a whole year. Thankfully we didn't become discouraged. We learned progress took time.

Slowly she gained control of her head and neck muscles and was able to sit up by herself. This was when she truly started to enjoy riding. Her daddy would sing "Happy Trails" to her on the way to the riding center. She would get excited in anticipation. Once she saw the horses, she'd wave her hands in the air with a smile covering her whole face. I, too, was excited. Sitting up meant she could finally sit in a high chair and shopping cart. I wouldn't need someone to accompany me to the store anymore!

Megan learned to pat the horse twice to make it move, which reinforced cause and effect. Once she learned this concept, other learning could take place.

Crossing midline happens when a child's arm crosses from one side of their body to the other. Parents are told how important crossing midline is in their child's development. Although this was attempted at home and at school, Megan hadn't mastered it yet. She worked on this skill while on the horse, and for some reason, would try harder. She eventually learned to cross midline by taking a large plastic ring in one hand, learned to transfer it to the other hand, and give the ring to a side-walker. These steps were repeated until Megan could cross midline independently. This meant that she could play independently with toys, switch from one hand to the other, and interact with people by giving them her toys.

As Megan gained more upper body strength, she rode backwards on the horse. I could tell she didn't like riding this way; she'd fuss! The physical therapist explained riding backwards worked her weak arm and shoulder muscles more than riding in a forward position. As long as the side-walkers talked to her while she rode, Megan tolerated the backwards riding.

Since Megan sat up so well, I wondered if it was foolish to think she could learn to crawl. She was placed in a 4-point position (hands and knees) on the horse. With the horse standing still, Megan would actually do push-ups on its back, with her legs being held in place by side-walkers. This motion was repeated on the floor at home with me moving Megan's arms. When this was well tolerated, Megan was again placed in a 4-point position on the horse's back. The horse was slowly moved forward two or three steps and stopped. Megan felt the left then right movement of her body on the horse. She learned to crawl shortly after beginning this activity!

During this time I noticed more normalization of muscle tone. Working on correct posture, she became more aware of her body in space. Specialists had told us that Megan would never sit up, crawl, or walk. Following work on weight bearing, Megan could stand holding on to something, but would stiffen her legs and wouldn't move them. Doctors still discouraged us from believing she would walk saying, if she had not walked by age five, it would never happen. At age eight, after a few sessions of riding Buster, a horse with a definite left to right hip movement, Megan took her first step. This happened on Mother's Day, 1996. What a miraculous gift!

Megan loves the sights and sounds she experiences while riding in an open arena. Although she doesn't talk, she vocalizes more while riding. She doesn't realize she's actually receiving therapy and even has a physical therapist walking behind her. Megan has cortical visual impairment. With each therapy session, her head is held more upright instead of the usual downward placement or the head tilted upward looking at the sky. She's actually looking at what she's doing.

Megan on horseback with trainers
Megan enjoys taking a ride.

We are fortunate that the Victoria Riding Therapy Center has a sensory trail. Sights, sounds, and tactile stimulation are the primary objectives of this path. Megan particularly likes the "clopping" noise made when the horse walks across the wooden bridge. She often laughs as she feels the movement of the horse going up and down a small hill. She doesn't realize she's working to control her upper body while keeping her balance. She just knows she loves to ride.

Eleven years later, Megan is walking with a walker. She is still riding, working primarily on posture and hip movement. The excitement she shows as she rides is worth all the hard work and time spent in riding therapy. She has greatly benefited from hippotherapy. Teamed with traditional physical therapy, it's amazing to see the accomplishments that can be made. I highly recommend this type of therapy for any child with special needs.

The family may be contacted at P.O. Box 145, Vanderbilt, TX 77991 and mjfkjf@ykc.com.

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