When A was in the NICU a few people had mentioned that horseback therapy (or hippotherapy) might be a good thing for A. The seed had been planted, and as she grew older I began to research exactly what it is. This is copied and pasted from the American Hippotherapy Association:
The horse's walk provides sensory input through movement which is variable, rhythmic and repetitive. The resultant movement responses in the client are similar to human movement patterns of the pelvis while walking. The variability of the horse's gait enables the therapist to grade the degree of sensory input to the client, then use this movement in combination with other clinical treatments to achieve desired results. Clients respond enthusiastically to this enjoyable learning experience in a natural setting.
Physically, hippotherapy can improve balance, posture, mobility and function. Hippotherapy may also affect psychological, cognitive, behavioral and communication functions for clients of all ages. Clients who may benefit from hippotherapy can have a variety of diagnoses: examples include Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Developmental Delay, Traumatic Brain Injury, Stroke, Autism and Learning or Language Disabilities. However, hippotherapy is not for every client. Each potential client must be evaluated on an individual basis by specially trained health professionals.
What really got my attention here was the word "balance". A was born without any semi-circular canals. These are small canals that help control balance. A typical person has 6 of these canals (3 in each ear). As far as the MRI could see, A has none. Zero. Zilch. So her balance has always been off, which caused her gross motor skills be be greatly delayed (she didn't start walking until age 3 1/2!) Knowing this, I was eager to try horse therapy as a way to give my daughter any advantage and help I could.
First, I had to find a place to take her. I looked on the NARHA website (North American Riding for the Handicapped Assocation) for a local center, and was pleased to find that there were several in my vicinity. However, most took kids starting at age 5; when I started to look, A was only 12 months old! I was fortunate enough to find a place that was willing to take her, although they wanted me to to wait several months until she got a bit older. 8 months later, at the age of 20 months, A started horse therapy. I should also mention that her pediatrician had to sign off on the paperwork to get her enrolled; horse therapy is not for everyone, and should only be done with a doctor's approval. And I had to go to a tack store to get her a helmet---a pink one, of course!
When A first started on horseback, she was assigned a small pony named Scarlet, a beautiful brown horse. She also had 3 people working with her: one to lead Scarlet, and 2 "sidewalkers", who are people who walk on either side of the horse to help hold A up. They hold onto her thighs, to give her extra stability and to make sure she doesn't fall off the horse. Her first day---actually, her first month--she HATED it! She cried the whole time, signing "all done". I stuck with it, though, and sure enough within in a few weeks she began to tolerate it. Now, over 2 years later, she loves it. She still has the same setup as we always have (she still needs a leader and 2 sidewalkers) but her attitude has changed. I think she really looks forward to going every week.
I am convinced that horse therapy has greatly helped A's balance. It is a lot of work to be on horseback, and she is on for 30-45 minutes each week. She really has to control her posture and balance on Scarlet. She also sometimes helps to "groom" Scarlet, standing next to her (with my supervision, of course) and brushing her hair and mane. Additionally, it has helped expand her language, cognition, and social skills.
I don't know how much longer we will be doing horse therapy. I could see ending in about a year or so...or I can see having her continue indefinitely, into her teens. There are many teens and young adults there that not only take lessons, but help care for the horses themselves. Regardless of how much longer we continue, I am grateful for finding out about horse therapy, and for the undeniable help it has given my baby.