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Wednesday 18 July 2018

How the healing power of horses is treating injuries and disabilities

Hippotherapy - a type of therapy using horses - is improving the motor co-ordination of children with Down Sydrome

The horse whisperer: Conor Kerlin taking part in a hippotherapy session with facilitator Clare McMonagle
The horse whisperer: Conor Kerlin taking part in a hippotherapy session with facilitator Clare McMonagle
Last summer five-year-old Maisie Colhoun attended Gortilea Social Farm for a 10-week programme

Siobhán English

For many years horse riding has proven to greatly benefit both adults and children suffering from a wide range of physical and mental disabilities.

From autism and ADHD to paralysis and injuries sustained in accidents, for both adults and children horses are known to have a unique calming effect and healing power.

Now a recent study conducted by a team of scientists in Brazil has shown that a specific type of therapy using horses can also improve the overall motor coordination of children with Down Syndrome.

Using hippotherapy, which works to improve coordination, balance and strength, the team conducted a study on 41 children, aged between six and 14. Of that group, 20 undertook riding therapy, and 21 did not.

Last summer five-year-old Maisie Colhoun attended Gortilea Social Farm for a 10-week programme
Last summer five-year-old Maisie Colhoun attended Gortilea Social Farm for a 10-week programme

All were later assessed on various exercises, including their balance on a beam, and how they carried out single-footed jumping.

The study showed that individuals that practiced hippotherapy presented better results in global motor coordination.

Among those who took part in horse riding, 5pc were assessed as having high global motor coordination, 40pc were rated as good and 55pc were assessed as normal.

In the non-riding group, none were assessed as having high global motor coordination, only 10pc were rated good, and 90pc were assessed as normal.

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The study concluded that the longer the activity, the better the overall motor coordination.

Children with Down Syndrome exhibit delay in the development of motor skills, indicating that this milestone appears at a different time when compared to children with normal development.

Development

Hippotherapy helps to stimulate this development in order to improve balance, encourage muscular strength and develop fine motor coordination.

The practice is widely used in the US, but it is relatively new in Ireland. Currently there are only two centres here offering the service - Strides Therapy in Co Cork and Gortilea Social Farm, situated near Derry City in Northern Ireland.

A fantastic meeting place for both adults and children, Gortilea Social Farm regularly hosts children with Down Syndrome. Facilitator Clare McMonagle notes that, after a few sessions, the difference in their co-ordination and speech can be remarkable.

"They usually come here for either a 10-week or 12-week session and we have found that children are benefiting greatly from each programme. Each session lasts approximately one hour," says Clare, who is a qualified occupational therapist registered with the American Hippotherapy Association.

These programmes are currently being financed by the Big Lottery Fund and also Children In Need, but there is now a waiting list due to the high demand.

"We are thrilled that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs have now also come on board and are part-funding a mechanical simulator which will arrive here in the autumn. I believe that our services should be made available free to children so we rely heavily on funding and are always grateful of donations," says Clare.

Last summer five-year-old Maisie Colhoun attended Gortilea Social Farm for a 10-week programme. "When she first started, Clare had to sit on the horse with her," says her mother Dawn. "Initially she was very unsteady on the horse but now she can sit up straight no problem. Maisie is unable to walk by herself but the riding has made such a difference to her core strength and will no doubt benefit her greatly when she is able to walk unaided.

"In the coming months Maisie will be returning to Gortilea to start another programme. She has created such a bond with one particular horse called Smokey and talks about him all the time," she concludes.

Core strength

Seven-year-old Conor Kerlin is currently half-way through the 12-week programme. His mother Corinda says that both his speech and core strength have improved dramatically.

"Conor has limited speech but his communication with the horse is remarkable. His face lights up every time he sees him and we can see such a difference in him already. The fun exercises they do on the horse have also greatly helped improve his muscle tone," Corinda says.

"I had often heard about hippotherapy but thought it was only available in the US. I was thrilled to learn that Gortilea offered the service and was only 15 miles from home."

Gortilea Social Farm offers a wide range of services for both adults and children, from animal care to cooking, craft-making and other activities. See gortileasocialfarm.com

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