Equine-assisted therapy making a noticeable difference

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Bryan Cruz-Hernandez, a kindergarten student, sits proudly atop Dallas as Police Chief Hugh Clements and Mounted Command officers assist.

A van pulls up to the Providence Police stables in Roger Williams Park, and an excited little boy makes his way to the indoor ring, where another child is triumphantly finishing his session on horseback, trotting a bit, his tall, straight posture a noticeable improvement from just 30 minutes prior. The new participant waits eagerly, while the first dismounts and strides half the length across the ring, his adult companions cheering his steady, purposeful steps. 

The boys switch places, with one heading back to school in the van and the other ascending a set of steps to take his place on the horse. The riding session begins with a slow loping pace, boy and horse moving in rhythm. The horse is called to a stop by his handler, and the child, a pint-sized boy of no more than 40 pounds, begins an exercise called “Around the World,” in which he swings one leg, then the other, over the horse, placing his hands carefully and grinning with delight as he rotates himself 360 degrees on the modified saddle. The boy has trouble with motor planning, a therapist explains, and is ordinarily unable to execute a complex series of movements such as this. But he does so with ease, finally landing backwards, where he is given a puzzle to complete. The horse, oblivious, gets his muzzle scratched.

Welcome to hippotherapy, Providence style.

Also known as equine-assisted therapy, this program was developed as an eight-week pilot by Dina DeAngelis, occupational therapy supervisor at Carnevale, Webster, and Carl Lauro elementary schools; physical therapist Lisa Devine-Keenan and speech pathologist Veronika Komondzy. Jennifer Hanley, an occupational therapist at Asa Messer, also assisted.

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Occupational therapist and horse owner Dina DeAngelis leads Dallas as Xavier Lima experiences the percussion of outdoor riding on concrete as opposed to the soft step of the ring.

After a year of review and approvals, the hippotherapy program made its debut last spring for 12 students from Anthony Carnevale Elementary School, DelSesto Middle School and Hope High School at the Mounted Command headquarters at Roger Williams Park. A van provided by the Providence Recreation Department transports the children to and from school for their hippotherapy session.

It is designed for students with special needs who have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that includes goals for therapy and related services. The therapists work on the child’s IEP goals in the classroom and while mounted on the horse.

According to DeAngelis, “Hippotherapy is a physical, occupational, speech and language treatment strategy using the movement of the horse to allow functional outcomes,” a definition that mirrors that of the American Hippotherapy Association.

The benefits of hippotherapy are physical, psychological, educational and social. According to  Devine-Keenan, a horse’s pelvis is shaped similar to a human’s and the animal walks with a three-dimensional gait pattern as we do. As a child sits on a walking horse, they experience anterior-posterior movement, lateral tilt and rotation, thus strengthening core postural muscles, stretching tight muscles and improving motor planning.

The program would not be possible without DeAngelis and Dallas, her 13-year-old American quarter horse, retired from his show jumping days. In addition to providing the horse, DeAngelis has provided the trailer that transports him to Providence each week.

The Equine-Assisted Therapy program is held at the Providence Police Mounted Command’s indoor riding facility at Roger Williams Park. While none of the Mounted Command’s large draft cross horses are used for the equine-assisted program, the group’s officers volunteer their time to assist the youngsters on and off the horse and help to ensure their safety while in the ring by walking on each side of the horse.

Working with children who have IEP’s gives the police officers firsthand exposure to the different challenges these students face.

“The equine program is one of many initiatives where Providence Police Officers are actively engaged with youth in our community,” says Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements, who stops in periodically to see the program in action. “The time that these mounted command officers spend one-on-one with children in equine-assisted therapy is a step apart from their daily routines. I’m proud that our department and our individual officers could step up to assist with the space and the additional manpower for this program.”

Results have been visible almost immediately. Utilizing the similar pelvic movement between horses and humans, riding the horse helps students who are balance and posture-challenged to change their gait. “We can control how the horse moves from side to side which transfers to the rider to help them rotate their pelvis, organize movement and normalize muscle tone,” DeAngelis said.

As a horse takes 100 steps every minute, the animal elicits 3,000 reactions in 30 minutes. Riders demonstrate better posture, breathing, and speech with improved diaphragm alignment while the warmth of the horse’s body encourages muscles to move, resulting in an improved range of motion.

“Their posture is completely different when they get off the horse from when they got on. They are more aware of their environment and their attention is better,” DeAngelis added. “It definitely makes a difference for kids with cerebral palsy. Their posture and awareness are better. They produce motor actions and they are more motivated.”

Christofel Pena, a four-year-old pre-kindergarten student with cerebral palsy from Asa Messer Elementary School, has difficulty with walking and sitting unsupported as well as with fine motor control and language. Once on the horse, his posture is better, his voice is louder and he completes more sentences. When he gets off the horse, his gait is noticeably improved.

Dallas has been a perfect fit for the children in the program. “Dallas’ gait works with our population. It affects students in the way we need them to respond,” said DeAngelis

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Cruz-Hernandez works through a puzzle on Dallas’s back.

Brian Cruz Hernandez, a six-year-old kindergartner from Asa Messer, who participated in the spring program, has difficulty with gross and fine motor skills as well as with language, motor planning and action. When he sits on the horse, he sits upright, is more attentive and initiates speech on his own, much to the delight of his family and therapists.

While seated on the standing horse, therapy continues as the therapists have the children throw, draw and do puzzles. Grooming and braiding the horse’s hair continues to provide therapy in a fun environment and helps the students to learn direction and to focus better.

According to Dania Hernandez, the hippotherapy program has helped her son to be more sociable and confident. “His social and emotional skills have improved. His motor skills have improved; he runs better and he even dares to jump. He is also more vocal; he communicates better, uses more words.

“He loves going to therapy,” she adds. “He has difficulty remembering, but always remembers he has to go to therapy.” She said that he feels more love and empathy for animals and is less afraid.

Hernadez is very grateful to the therapists for recommending her son for the hippotherapy program and hopes more children will be able to participate. “They are very kind and you can see that they love children.”

In addition to the therapeutic benefits of hippotherapy, the program helps bring the children back to nature, said DeAngelis. “We as a society are moving further away from nature with the electronics,” she said. “This allows the children to get outdoors and interact with animals.”

While some students may be hesitant at their first visit, they become very excited on future visits. The atmosphere in the riding facility is very quiet, though, as everyone collaborates together to focus on the movement of the horse as it affects the rider.

This spring’s program lasted just four weeks with six students from Asa Messer attending for two 30-minutes sessions each week. It is hoped that, with funding, the program could be offered annually in the spring and fall.

While DeAngelis provides the services of her horse and the cost of transporting him to the indoor riding ring each week, she hopes to be able to raise $3,500-$4,000 a year to provide another horse and equipment.

With three city departments working together, the police, school and recreation departments, the program is a collaborative effort that benefits children in multiple ways.

“The equine-assisted program gives students more motivation and confidence,” DeAngelis said. “They feel empowered when they sit on this animal.”