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'I was gob-smacked' - How a horse helped a little boy with autism say his first words

From non-verbal and aggressive to engaged and tranquil, hippotherapy transformed Fennec Hurley's temperament in just two months, mum Ciara Fehilly tells our reporter


Fennec with mum Ciara (left) at Strides. Photo: Clare Keogh

Fennec with mum Ciara (left) at Strides. Photo: Clare Keogh

Occupational therapist and Strides owner Sarah Beasley

Occupational therapist and Strides owner Sarah Beasley


Fennec with mum Ciara (left) at Strides. Photo: Clare Keogh

Two months ago, little Fennec Hurley was non-verbal, hyperactive and physically aggressive, regularly hitting himself and his mother.

Today, he is talking; he is far more tranquil, much happier and no longer aggressive, according to his mother.

What happened?

Fennec rode a horse.


Occupational therapist and Strides owner Sarah Beasley

Occupational therapist and Strides owner Sarah Beasley

Occupational therapist and Strides owner Sarah Beasley

The two-and-a-half-year-old, who was diagnosed last November with severe to moderate autism, had exhibited symptoms of the condition from a young age: "When he was 18 months old, he had no words, was walking on tiptoes and was extremely energetic. He made no eye contact and was not very affectionate," recalls his mother, 29-year-old Ciara Fehilly from Bishopstown, Co Cork, who recalls that her son made no progress with traditional sessions of occupational therapy.

However, on the advice of Fennec's swim coach, she brought Fennec to Ireland's only hippotherapy service - the Strides Therapy Clinic, an occupational therapy centre which specialises in hippotherapy, a form of physical, occupational or speech and language therapy which uses the movement of horses.

Based in rural Co Cork, the clinic uses horses to treat a range of conditions including autism, sensory processing disorder, cerebral palsy, brain injury, dyspraxia, chromosomal disorders such as Down syndrome and a number of rare genetic disorders.

In recent weeks, Fennec has been attending weekly 50-minute sessions at Strides, where he spends up to 40 minutes on horseback under the supervision of a qualified occupational therapist. Although her son was initially very resistant to the therapy - he protested noisily, Ciara recalls - at his fourth session, he amazed his mother by greeting his horse, saying, "Hello" and later "Bye-bye".

"He had never said these words before. I was amazed by this. I was floored. I was gobsmacked," she recalls.

"Fennec sits on the horse's back. The horse walks very slowly around the clinic arena, led by his therapist, who sings songs, blows bubbles and helps him with different activities such as playing with toys and making a jigsaw while on horseback. All the while, his therapist is working with him to help him improve his behaviour and his speech."

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Ciara was also taken aback by how tranquil Fennec appeared following each hippotherapy session.

"He's normally very hyper and aggressive, but that fourth session left me reeling because he had spoken and was so tranquil." On his sixth session, she reveals, he actually said, "Bye-bye, Daisy," to the horse and did a simple jigsaw all by himself - something he had never done before.


Stella on horseback

Stella on horseback

Stella on horseback

"Before he went to Strides, he was very aggressive. I would be bruised from him and he would bruise himself. It was out of frustration because he couldn't get the words out. Now he no longer hits himself, or me, and has loads of new words," she says proudly.

"He points at things he wants me to see and is more tranquil. It is amazing because since he has been there, he is doing things he never did before. I am so proud of him; there's been such a huge improvement in such a short time. They told me at the beginning that I needed to have patience and to wait and see - and within just four sessions, his transformation began," says Ciara who writes a blog, The Foxy Potato (facebook.com/thefoxypotato), about her son.

Strides was set up nearly three years ago by occupational therapist Sarah Beasley, who is currently studying for her final exams to qualify as a clinical specialist in hippotherapy.

The clinic at Ballinphellic, just outside the busy commuter town of Ballincollig, has eight horses, two horse-handlers and three occupational therapists, and is the only fully operational hippotherapy service in Ireland.

"To us, a horse is a therapeutic tool like a therapy ball or a therapy swing," explains Sarah, whose unusual facility features stables and an arena for the horses - which is the clinic's main treatment area - along with a sensory room, a fine motor skills room for working with skills such as grasping, writing or cutting, and an area for the nurturing of gross motor skills such as walking, running or kicking a football.

Clients, who are aged from 12 months and up, are mostly children - the clinic limits its adult intake because hippotherapy is essentially an early-intervention treatment, Sarah explains.

Although Strides does treat adults with conditions such as brain injury or MS, she says they find that the results are generally much better if the clinic is called in early on in the history of a specific condition.

"We are using the three-dimensional movement of the horse's pelvis in a clinical, evidence-based way to influence the various systems of the body - sensory, nervous, musculoskeletal - to help children function better in everyday life," she explains.

The repetitive, rhythmical, passive movement of the horse is transmitted to the client's pelvis and lower trunk as the horse walks around the arena.

"For every minute the horse walks, it takes 100 steps. This movement is being transmitted through the child's body," Sarah explains.

"In a 20-minute session, a client gets about 2,000 inputs through its trunk, and each input affects the different systems in the body such as the sensory or motor systems.

"As therapists, we direct the horse through different movements. These specific movement impact on the different systems of the body, helping to regulate and stabilise them."

When a child has autism, he or she can, be over- or under-sensitive to sound, and the rhythmic, repetitive movement of the horse helps regulate that imbalance, she explains.

"Different horses, different movements by the horse, and different horseback positions for the client all help influence the systems within the body.

"We have had children who come in with their hands over their ears because the very ordinary noise around them is too much for them. The movement of the horses regulates that imbalance within them and after a few sessions noise is no longer an issue for the child."

The therapy can also help with the child's ability to process information and improve communication skills, body awareness, social interaction and an awareness of physical risk in the environment. Attention span and concentration can also improve following hippotherapy, she says, along with a client's levels of motivation and confidence.

Sessions last for 50 minutes - up to 40 of which may be spent on the horse - depending on the child's age, condition and his or her response to the movement of the horse. Clients also work closely with therapists in the clinic's specialist rooms

"A lot of research from the USA over the last 10 years shows that hippotherapy is beneficial and that it can influence the sensory system, postural control and communication, which in turn improves a child's ability to manage day-to-day life," says Sarah, adding that the treatment technique is also very effective with other conditions, such as cerebral palsy.

"It helps regulate muscle tone and improve muscle symmetry and allows us to help the client with cerebral palsy to manage simple day-to-day tasks like getting dressed, engaging with peers or playing games."

It can also benefit clients with brain injury. Stella McGrath - a promising young point-to-point jockey who sustained serious brain injury and a broken back during a riding accident last November - is one of Sarah's adult clients.

Stella (21), from the West Cork village of Innishannon, spent nearly three months in hospital, followed by a further nine weeks in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin.

Her mother, Jackie, heard about Strides through word of mouth and arranged for Stella to travel home from Dublin every weekend to avail of weekly hippotherapy sessions at the clinic.

"It's very much for children with special needs and autism but we felt it could also be good for Stella," says Jackie.

Before signing Stella up to the hippotherapy sessions, she says, she checked with a medical expert at the National Rehabilitation Centre and with the Turf Club, who all gave the therapy the green light.
"It has proved very beneficial. Stella adores horses so, besides the therapeutic work, simply being on a horse has to be good for her recovery."

Following her accident, Stella remained silent for five weeks, after which, says Jackie, her conversation was very restricted.

However, Jackie recalls, after just one session of hippotherapy, this suddenly improved.

"Once Stella got up on the horse, her verbal interaction significantly improved - the effect was almost immediate. She continues to improve," says Jackie, adding that the family plans to continue with Stella's hippotherapy for the foreseeable future.

"Apparently, the movement going through a person's body as a result of sitting on a walking horse is extremely therapeutic, and we have found this to be the case for Stella."

For more info visit strides.ie. *Details of the Stella McGrath Trust Fund at Allied Irish Banks:

A/C no: 39667007

Sort Code: 93 40 46

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