Experts Offer Insight Into Horse-Assisted Therapy
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Experts Offer Insight Into Horse-Assisted Therapy

Horses can be used for more than just recreation: treating diagnosed disabilities and issues.

Erin Wunderlich

Dana Elyes stepped outside the barn like any normal Saturday morning, ready to bring the horses in and prepare for a full scheduled day of riding lessons, assisted therapy and stable work.

As the Arena Director, Elyes supervises the staff at Dream Riders as they provide equine assisted activities and therapies to various individuals with special needs.

Dream Riders is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to provide the highest quality of therapy services to as many participants as possible, and to allow for the long-term sustainability of their program. Located in Crystal Lake, Illinois, they offer therapy services to those with special needs or disabilities through the use of horses.

"Our mission is always a work in progress," said Elyes. "As we are growing, changing, and expanding, we're really understanding the importance of our mission: it's what drives us."

Equine assisted therapy is a large umbrella term that encompasses the complexity of the services Dream Riders offers. More specifically, most people who come to Dream Riders undergo hippotherapy, which Elyes describes as a "medical treatment done by a licensed therapist that uses a horse for their movement or behavior as a strategy for therapy."

Although assisted equine therapy is for anyone, Dream Riders usually deals with younger kids. As Elyes recalls, "I've seen people as young as eight weeks and as old as ninety-nine."

In general, hippotherapy is used as a treatment strategy to help with physical, occupational, or speech needs, but also addresses many other diagnosed disabilities or issues. It uses the movement of the horse to address attention, range of motion, balance, tone, posture control, coordination, alignment and more.

Alexis Scotten, a pediatric physical therapist employed at Dream Riders, evaluates each client and makes a specific plan of care that involves the horses and traditional PT strategies.

"The horses are another tool in our bucket that we can use," said Scotten.

As an example, Scotten described two situations and how she would treat them:

"If I had a kid with cerebral palsy, who has really tight muscles, I would put them on a horse that is more narrow to fit their limited range of motion. Versus a low-toned, weak kid with down syndrome who would be put on a wide horse, that way they have more support for their weak system."

Each person has their own input, which can be defined as the vertical displacement that happens within their body. And each horse has their own gait, which is equivalent to the input of a human.

Teddy, who is a very low input horse at Dream Riders, would be a great match for certain clients who lack those necessary functions normally. The rhythmic, three-dimensional movement that the horse provides unconsciously stimulates the client's problem areas.

By utilizing the horses before moving onto traditional therapy directly afterwards, "the kids' minds are set in a good place and it lets us be more productive in our work," said Scotten.

"A lot of places who do equine assisted therapy only have the horse portion," says Scotten. "But they're just getting the benefits of the horse and not necessarily using those gains in a function setting afterwards."

Dream Rider's miracle kid, who will remain anonymous due to legal reasons, was just eight weeks old when he started therapy. Due to prior seizures and other complications in utero, he had a stroke during birth and lost forty percent of his brain functions, almost losing his life.

The doctors were sure that he would not be able to walk, talk or eat. "Not your typical developing kid," Elyes recalls.

Even at such an early age, his therapist wanted to put him on a horse. And six years later, still missing forty percent brain function, he is now an on-track developing kid. And because he started out so young and received that input from the horse, his brain created new pathways to rewire the damaged, necessary functions he was missing.

"The earlier you can intervene with some issues the more you can help them," Elyes says.

In addition to therapy to treat special needs, Dream Riders also offers therapeutic riding lessons and activities that benefit a person's emotional state.

"Sometimes it's just being in the presence of a horse. They offer something unique to each individual," said Elyes.

Meghan Hayes, a riding instructor and rehab tech who has been at Dream Riders for about nine years, says that "coming for lessons or to volunteer is not only therapeutic, but it also builds self-confidence and independence."

Due to COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Pritzker, Dream Riders has had to cease any therapy for safety reasons.

However, physical therapists like Scotten have been able to continue traditional PT through telehealth communications from home. "It's hard to figure out how to be a physical therapist without being physically there. But, one positive thing is that parents have had to be hands-on and involved."

All of the fundraisers that Dream Riders rely on to fund their operating expenses have to be canceled due to the pandemic. But they have not lost hope. "It's forcing us to get creative and see how else we can reconfigure. This might become our new normal and we have to see what we can do with that," says Dana.

See how you can help Dream Riders by following this link to donate today. Your contribution will help keep Dream Riders running, feed the horses and ensure the continuation of equine assisted therapy to those who rely on it.

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