Horses can help kids with special needs

Hippotherapy treatment helps improve motor skills, focus attention and more



Patricia Hogan

For many kids with special needs, horseback riding is a fun activity that can also have a tremendous therapeutic effect. Some occupational and physical therapists, and speech-language professionals use horses to stimulate low muscle tone, improve motor skills, focus attention and address sensory processing issues in a treatment called hippotherapy.

“Hippotherapy is therapy,” said Devon O’Farrell, an instructor and co-founder of St. Lazare’s Enfants en ÉquiLibre, a riding centre that specializes in both therapeutic riding and hippotherapy. “It’s a clinical treatment that happens to be on horseback.”

O’Farrell said that while traditional hippotherapy focuses on using the movement of the horse as therapy, the health professionals at Enfants en ÉquiLibre also use the animals to focus a child’s attention.

“Sometimes just being on the horse helps the kids to participate (in therapy) a bit better, rather than being in a clinical setting,” O’Farrell said. “You bring in the connection with the animal. There’s a sense of awe when you’re a small child, to be that high up and to know that there’s something really powerful beneath you.”

O’Farrell said instructors are accredited health professionals who are also certified by the American Hippotherapy Association.

Therapeutic riding, on the other hand, focuses on teaching riding skills to children who have physical limitations, social anxiety or learning disabilities, and is typically offered as part of a regular series of weekly lessons. Instructors are certified by the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association and are trained to adapt the lessons for children with cognitive, motor or communication differences.

Horseback riding is a sport known to benefit coordination, strength and self-confidence but O’Farrell cautions parents of children with special needs to be wary of riding centres that offer ‘therapy’ by instructors who don’t have clinical training and certification.

Enfants en ÉquiLibre is moving to a new location in early September at 4200 Ste. Angelique.

For more information, call 438-403-3341 or visit enfantsenequi-libre.com.

Other therapeutic riding centres

Lucky Harvest Equine-Assisted Therapy Centre
1900 Route 202, Hinchinbrooke.

Founded in 1992, this non-profit was the first centre of this type in Quebec. For more information, call 450-264-0282 or visit luckyharvestproject.wordpress.com. 

Marie-Laurence Therapeutic Equestrian Centre
1750 4e rang, Ste-Justine-de-Newton.

This rural riding centre aims to engage the whole family, not just the child in need of assistance. The facility includes recreational areas where siblings can play during lessons. For more information, call 450-764-3156. 

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