Horses

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I know, I know. It’s confusing. It’s not therapy with hippopotamuses. That would be dangerous, because hippos are one of the deadliest animals on earth. It’s true, well, at least in Africa, where they are known to attack humans, tip over boats and kill 500+ people a year [source: Sciencealert.com].

No, it’s about therapy with horses and nowadays “Equine-assisted therapy” seems a more prevalent and common term. And the difference [in case you’re ever on a game show] between Hippotherapy and Equine-assisted therapy is the former requires the involvement of a Physical/Occupational Therapist, while the latter does not. And I’m no expert, just offer some perspectives as a rider and a patient. But I knew enough that I was led to the stables and the horses who lived there.

It seemed so natural. I rode as a kid – starting one vacation where I timidly climbed in the saddle and screamed when “it moved.” But got better over time. Even in college I took “horsemanship” as a physical education credit, and besides riding learned to tack and groom. So I knew my way around a barn. That’s what made it so natural, I guess.

I am a stroke patient [most recently in 2010] and neurology offers precious little. So you have to be your own advocate and explore non-traditional, non-medical alternatives. I had read that children, especially with autism, Cerebral Palsy, even eating disorders, benefit from working with horses. And anyone with walking, balance and gait problems. That would be me. Even if it didn’t work, it would be fun, an outing into the fresh air.

It’s also nice that horses don’t talk. It’s a break in a noisy world where everybody wants to talk, but doesn’t seem to have much to say. And they say 95% of communication is non-verbal anyway. Horses are great in this respect. Huge soulful, wise eyes, and a flicker of their mane or ears or tail. The aroma of the animals, the barn, the wool and the leather. Who needs to talk?unnamed-1

My horse was named Prince. Big, strong, patient and good around new riders. Sometimes we’d be led by the bridle, or sometimes get to ride in a full gallop across a field that brought back memories of younger days. And required muscles that would mildly complain the next day. And at the end of our ride, I’d give Prince an apple and he’s give me a shower of apple juice with his strong teeth and jaws. So I quickly learned to offer carrots instead, or peppermints. More manageable for both of us.

I spent six months in hippotherapy – that seemed to be the right amount of time to see if there might be a glimmer of progress. But I never reached the goals I was looking for. No improved mobility or better walking with a cane. Maybe too unrealistic But I WAS a hero at Physical Therapy where I was “the guy who rides horses.” Kind of like “Dances with Wolves.” Maybe hippotherapy is better for children and their problems. And maybe a benefit for their beleaguered parents – who get a break, if only for an hour. An hour can be huge.

Therapy aside, recreation is fun, healthy and minimized in society anymore. Great memories and reliving our youth, moving and working muscles you seem to have forgotten about. We can learn a lot from animals. And maybe should aspire to be more like them.

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Todd Winninger is a Freelance Writer, specializing in volunteer assignments with non-profit organizations. His online portfolio is at [http://www.linkedin.com/in/winncomm] He lives in South Florida.