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.”
Particularly for physical and occupational therapy, movement is key, as patients need to work on things like balance, dexterity, strength and coordination. Being on a horse is great for building those skills, especially when spatial activities are added in.
Angela Beplat, an occupational therapist and founder of Nature’s Way, incorporates various games into her sessions that work toward several of those goals at once. While the horse is led around the arena, a rider will grab for a ring held up by a volunteer walking on the left and pass it off to someone on the right. They’ll hold out a plastic circle like a steering wheel and twist it to “drive” the horse through a line of orange cones. They could sit backward on the horse and catch and throw a plastic ball. Or, like Lachlan’s favorite, they’ll use a toy sword to stab through rings held at various heights and distances around the arena.
For kids with autism, which typically represent about half the clientele Nature’s Way serves, certain stimuli can be overwhelming, but being astride a horse can promote much-needed sensory regulation so the child can calm down and focus.
“Horses provide an amazing amount of movement that is very organizing and provides a lot of self-regulation with kids with autism and other disorders,” Beplat said.
Some of the results she’s seen in hippotherapy are much better than outcomes she’s seen in clinical settings, Beplat said.
“Some of the kids I’ve seen in other settings plateau and stop making progress, but the horse is such a dynamic tool in that you automatically have this animal that this child wants to be with, and they’re motivated to be working and moving on the horse,” she said.
Gains over the course of the summer program often are incremental, and that can make them subtle to spot — a slightly longer reach, a lap or two more endurance, a few more instances of eye contact, one or two additional words spoken in a sentence, a meltdown lasting less time than it might otherwise. But for those who care about the kids, any advancement toward their lives being a little easier — a little communicative, a little more functional — is a lot to be thankful for.
“He’s made slow gains, but they’ve been steady gains,” said Wight of her son, Finn, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 3½. “I found that when you don’t necessarily see immediate results from therapy you kind of wonder how well it’s actually working. But what we’ve found with horse therapy is the days he did ride on the horse he did so much better the rest of the day.
“And sometimes he would struggle at the sessions, but once they got him moving and trotting on the horse he started to relax and calm down, and for the rest of the day he’d be a different kid, so it definitely was helping him,” Wight said.
And then there are the breakthroughs, the advancements in leaps and bounds, the moments when even someone not closely familiar with a child can recognize something major happening.
“In my mind every kid that we’ve had so far has made progress and has been a success. We’ve had a couple kids who said their first word or maybe their second word while we were in session. There were several sessions that were probably close to the highlight of my clinical career so far,” Miller said.
“It’s pretty gratifying. We’ve had a couple kids that were much more impaired as younger children, and we did a lot of sensory integration strategies and real basic speech — cause and effect or following visual schedules — and now you can have whole conversations with these kids,” she said.
Not just because of their program, Miller qualifies, recognizing the work done at school, home and in other therapeutic programs, but said that it’s great to participate in improving a child’s life.
“We’re just one part of that for them, but it’s very exciting when, even for a short program, we can see them take steps forward,” Miller said.
That’s what keeps the hippotherapy program going, now just finishing its sixth season, despite its logistical challenges.
“I have seen some of these kids make progress with the hippotherapy that I have not seen in the clinic,” Beplat said. “It made me realize that it’s something very special, and that it’s worth it. So many times I’ve wanted to just throw in the hat, but several of the families tell me it is the highlight of their summer, and they believe this has helped their children more than anything else they’ve done. I just can’t stop doing it.”
Beplat started the program in 2009, after moving back to the central peninsula with her husband. She’s from Ninilchik originally, and grew up around horses, participating in the 4-H program. When she was in high school she went to a leadership conference in Anchorage and met Annie Mabrey, founder of the first therapeutic riding program in Alaska. Mabrey told Beplat about her program and said the young horse enthusiast should come check it out.
“Wow, that just sounded so exciting,” Beplat said. “I went up and volunteered when I was 18, as soon as I was off to college (at the University of Alaska Anchorage). I still remember the day like it was yesterday, because it was just so amazing. I remember working with the kids and horses, it was like light bulbs were going off. Like, ‘Wow, I could do this as a job? This is incredible!’ It inspired me to pursue a degree in therapy.”
After getting her bachelor’s from UAA, Beplat went for her master’s in New Mexico, where Mabrey gave her contacts for a hippotherapy business at which Beplat worked as a physical therapy aide.
“Seeing that business firsthand was foundational for me in being able to do what I’m doing now,” she said.
She moved back to Alaska, living in Eagle River and working as an interventionist in Anchorage, but she missed the opportunity to work in her dream arena — with both kids and horses. She and her husband moved to the central peninsula, and with her certification from the American Hippotherapy Association, she began Nature’s Way. Miller, who also grew up in the 4-H horse program on the peninsula, was one of her volunteers from the start, and went on to become a clinician with the program after getting her AHA certification, as well.
Though rewarding from the get-go, the program was in no way easy to start. Dealing with horses in any context requires a lot of work, even more so when adding kids with disabilities to the mix. Not just any horse will do. They have to have the right temperament — calm, stable, patient and tolerant — they have to move smoothly and evenly, and they have to go through a lot of training and testing to make sure they’re safe.
Three horses passed the test — Heidi, Dazzle and Ozzie.
“We selected them because of their temperament, primarily, and then their gait and their training. We need all of these things from them to be a good therapy horse,” Miller said. “They’re very, very calm, and we have kids move quickly and unexpectedly, and maybe even bite at the horse or things like that, and they just don’t react. Safety is our number-one concern.”
All three horses went through desensitization training, where they were tested under various circumstances.
“We’d borrow kids and practice with them — put them on the horses, have them yell and scream and thrash around,” Miller said. “We bounce balls off of the horses, blow bubbles around them, have them walk over things. The horses are just like people, they have their own personalities and some of them are a lot more tolerant of certain things than others. They’re all very well rounded as horses go. It takes a lot to really surprise them.”
The horses have proven to be exceedingly calm and tolerant. Nevertheless, strict precautions are taken to ensure safety — that neither the kids nor the horses get hurt. Each rider has a minimum of two people assisting, one on each side of the horse, and wears a safety belt with handles so the assistants can help them mount and dismount, and steady them as needed while riding. Miller attributes their positive safety track record in part to the horses as well as the volunteers and clinicians.
“On some level I suspect that the horses somehow intuitively know that the children are a little bit different,” Miller said. “They always seem a little bit interested in the kids, and a lot of times if a kid is really moving around unexpectedly on the horse I can see the horse flick its ears back and turn their head just a little bit to kind of watch them. And I think they’re just a little worried about the kid. I think a lot of times they just don’t want the kids to fall off.”
The program has grown to and even stretched the capacity Beplat and Miller are able to provide. They serve just under 20 clients per summer, ranging in age from 2.5 to 12, with conditions including autism, cerebral palsy, fetal alcohol syndrome, congenital limb anomalies, spinal bifida and general developmental global delays. Quality, trained volunteers are key to the program, but not always easy to find and retain. Only three horses have proven themselves as being suitable for hippotherapy. Beplat and Miller can only handle so many sessions per day, being the only therapists with hippotherapy certification on the peninsula. And before, during and after the sessions, all the regular horse-wrangling duties apply.
This summer things got exponentially easier as Nature’s Way secured an agreement with Carrol and JoAnne Martin, owners of Diamond M Ranch in Kenai, to use a portion of their land on Mosey Along Drive as a horse arena. Nature’s Way paid for dirt work and to install fencing, with the understanding that anyone in the neighborhood can use the arena when not in session for hippotherapy. Having a site in town, close to where Beplat and Miller live, means they no longer have to trailer their horses and haul them out to their previous site in Sterling.
It saves a lot of time and hassle and makes the program a little easier to maintain. Ideally, someday, Beplat would like a covered arena in which she could offer hippotherapy year-round.
But for now, with another season wrapping up, she and Miller are content with incremental progress of the program, and especially the continued progress of the kids it serves.
“It’s really small but I think the level of therapy that we’re doing there is kind of impressive, actually, and the fact that it’s in Alaska is a big deal. From the therapeutic perspective, for me, you could do speech therapy anywhere, so why not do it on the back of a horse?” Miller said.
“Hopefully we can just continue going with it, maybe expand it a little bit without getting overstretched. I think our main goal is to be very supportive to our families and provide an excellent level of therapy for the area. Our area has a lot of need, and it’s a privilege to be able to serve our families and serve our kids in this way. It’s really gratifying and it’s a privilege to be a part of watching a child grow.”