By Peggy Revell on March 28, 2017.
Before Dritan Mack met Irish, the five-year-old couldn’t say his “f’s” when speaking.
“Now he can say it perfectly every time,” said Heidi Mack on her son’s progress thanks to equine-assisted therapy.
Also known as “hippotherapy” — the local program was launched as a pilot project in 2015 by Advanced Occupational Therapy Services and Speech Language Works, and has just wrapped up a second year.
It’s not your average kind of horseback riding. A child is led around the ring by speech language and occupational therapists and volunteers who give directions, ask questions, use cue cards and work on specific goals.
“I’m so impressed with the changes these kids are making in just a few weeks,” said Sandy Redden of SLW. In one case, a child was severely slouching and couldn’t stay on the horse for more than a minute. Ten weeks later, he could ride sitting tall for 40 minutes — frontwards, backwards, even sideways — all while doing the speech language exercises.
The original program started off at Grey Owl Stables near Seven Persons, but has since expanded to also run out of the Forsyth Ranch just outside of Medicine Hat. A total of 16 kids participating in the latest session block, which ran weekly from January through to March.
Hosting — and providing horses — for the program was an easy decision for Morley Forsyth. He knew from the beginning when he bought Forsyth Ranch, he wanted to make it a learning facility, one where anyone who walked through the door would feel welcome.
Hippotherapy fit right in with this.
“It’s amazing how comfortable the kids are; they settled in really fast,” he said, although there were quite a few tears during the first session.
There were no tears for Dritan, though — who said his favourite part is petting the horses.
“He loves being in the barn … he counts the days down,” said Heidi. When he goes to preschool he tells everyone all the details about what he’s done each week during the session where he gets to ride “Irish.” His show and tell is often a video his mom has taken of him riding.
It hasn’t just been the speech that he’s made strides in, Heidi added — but his confidence and core strength and balance.
“It’s a real team environment, looking at the whole child,” said Redden. While the focus has been on speech language and occupational therapy, they’ve also been able to have physical therapists work with the children.
As well, there’s the volunteers who make it happen, like those at the barns who have knowledge about riding “inside and out” said Redden.
“We bring our therapy experience but they know so much more,” she said.
And when a couple more horses were needed, Forsyth said a family who boards at the stable with them didn’t even hesitate to offer them for use.
“If we didn’t have these ranchers willing to let us use these horses, we wouldn’t have this opportunity,” said Heidi.
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