Steamboat Springs Something special happens at the Humble Ranch Education and Therapy Center every time a rider mounts up for a hippotherapy session. The movement and rhythm of the horse's walk transfers to the rider's body and activates the healing process.
"As a physical therapist working with all kinds of people and challenges, my dream was to have therapy happen in a natural, truly healing environment," Cheri Trousil explained. "To me, that meant the outdoors, not the confines of a clinic."
Trousil's dream was realized in January 2000 with the founding of Humble Ranch. Now in its second summer of providing hippotherapy, the education and therapy center located four miles south of Steamboat Springs on River Road has numerous success stories and a waiting list of clients.
The term hippotherapy describes a program that has specific goals and is administered by a licensed therapist using a horse as a tool, Trousil said. It is related to but more specialized than therapeutic riding, which the ranch also provides. "Hippo" is the Greek word for horse.
Occupational therapist Judy Dettwiler is enthused about working with children in the hippotherapy program. "The natural setting helps kids to relax in a non-threatening environment," she said. "It's wonderful to see the look of pride on a child's face and realize that their self-esteem is growing as we address their other challenges."
Hippotherapy helps people who have neuromuscular disorders, balance, strength or coordination issues or postural dysfunction, Trousil explained. Their challenges may have been present since birth or may be the result of
an illness or accident. Although the local program has more pediatric clients, it is equally effective with adults.
A typical hippotherapy session begins with warm-up exercises or
massage administered by one of four hospital-based therapists. As the client's joints and muscles are mobilized and loosened, there is time to focus on the upcoming ride. The horseback portion of the session lasts for about 30 minutes. Because the horse's natural rhythm mimics that of the human pelvis during gait, the rider's pelvis and muscles benefit from this important movement pattern, Trousil explained.
"After the ride, we can take what the client has gained and apply it to purposeful function and action," Trousil said. "We'll work on gait, stride length or climbing stairs, for example. The horse is just part of it, but it brings such function and purpose to the therapy."
Hippotherapy also works wonders with children who have sensory integration problems, Dettwiler said. A child who cannot easily filter incoming sensory "messages" often can get overwhelmed. Hippotherapy offers the child an opportunity to have a relationship with an animal and receive the sensory stimulation and postural control that is critical in treatment.
"The motion of the horse calms their sensory system and a therapist can really connect and do some important work," Trousil said. "A child who normally can only follow one instruction is suddenly following three instructions."
"So many moms have cried, seeing their children have successful experiences," Dettwiler said. "Children can function at a higher level than they've ever done before, and that is so touching to all of us."
Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center.