By Jenny Neyman
Lachlan McManus was having a blast. What 10-year-old on a horse wouldn’t be? Especially when there’s a sword involved, as there was during the Kenai boy’s riding session July 30 in an arena off Kalifornsky Beach Road near Kenai, with Lachlan plunging the sword forward in a fencing-style thrust, or extending it straight overhead as though he’d just freed Excalibur from its rock.
In his head, he could be a swashbuckling pirate or a knight of the Round Table galloping off to battle, wielding his nimble blade in one hand and guiding his powerful steed with the other.
The reality, of course, was less dramatic. The sword was a blunt-edged toy, lacking the heft to make a swashing sound, much less damage anything with which it might accidentally make contact. The only buckles involved were those on the riding gear and the safety belt fashioned around Lachlan’s waist. As for the horse, full speed ahead was more of a mosey than a trot, and direction came from the helpers walking along each side, rather than the rider having the reins.
But the lack of daring and danger didn’t bother Lachlan, nor did the fact that he wasn’t really getting a riding lesson. As far as he was concerned, he had an activity to enjoy on a summer afternoon, he was playing games and getting undivided attention, and he was on a horse — ergo, he was enjoying himself, period.
To those around him, though, Lachlan’s enjoyment was just the starting point of the afternoon’s purpose. Because he was enjoying himself he was easily engaged with his helpers, willing to listen to instructions, carry out the tasks being presented as games and try to achieve each incremental increase in challenge.
To the helpers — certified therapists and volunteer assistants with Nature’s Way Rehabilitation Services, the session was therapy. To Lachlan, it was just plain fun. To both parties, the day’s success was made possible in large part because of the horse.
That’s the world of hippotherapy — a physical, occupational or speech/language treatment strategy that incorporates horses. It’s a program that’s been available to kids with disabilities on the central Kenai Peninsula for six summers now, through Nature’s Way. It’s one of only a few programs of its kind available in Alaska, and the only available on the peninsula, or anywhere outside of the Anchorage area.
“I just think it’s incredible that there’s an actual hippotherapy opportunity for kids around here, because it is so specialized. Living on the peninsula, you wouldn’t think that something like that would be available, and they’re making it available, and I think it’s phenomenal for kids that could definitely benefit from it,” said Jami Wight, of Soldotna, who has had two of her kids in the summer hippotherapy program.
The term comes from the Greek “hippos,” meaning horse, as opposed to the Latin “equus,” for horse. It’s under the larger umbrella of equine therapy, though it’s not therapeutic riding, where specific riding skills are taught, or horse therapy, where interaction with horses is used to support therapeutic outcomes.
Hippotherapy specifically utilizes the movement of horses to create adaptive responses in patients and facilitate physical, occupational and speech/language treatment goals.
Therapy for kids needs to be fun and engaging to be effective, which is why various approaches incorporate games, toys and activities. In that sense the horse is a tool, just like a ball or tricycle, only way more fun — thus, way more engaging.
“It’s an amazing tool. It’s kind of like putting a kid in a swing or on a ball or trampoline or something like that, but it’s a horse, and what kid doesn’t like horses? We haven’t really met one yet,” said Noelle Miller, a speech therapist with Nature’s Way. “The beauty of horse therapy is it’s such a holistic environment and such an exciting environment that a lot of times you just get more verbal output from kids and more interactive output from kids because it’s real. You’re doing something with people, with animals. You’re not trying to stage a situation that demands interactions and reactions, it just happens naturally.”