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Archives: Health
Updated: Monday, June 7, 2004 1:15 PM EDT

John Feldman rides through a session at Milestones, Inc.

Photo by DAN FELDMAN

Equine Therapy: A Healing Gait

ALEXANDRIA John Robert Feldman has a lot to be confident about.

His mother will tell you he walks straighter these days, and no matter what he's doing he feels like he's doing it well.

Feldman is a rather accomplished 17-year-old. Just last summer his horsemanship earned him a gold medal. Feldman, who has mild cerebral palsy, with limited use of the right side of his body, won the gold medal at the state Special Olympics at the Kentucky Horse Park last fall and will compete again this October. He was among nine riders from Milestones, Inc., an equine therapy facility in Alexandria.

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Equine therapy, also known as hippotherapy, from the Greek word for "horse," is based on the premise that the rhythmic, repetitive gait of the horse improves the balance, posture, strength and cognitive skills of the disabled rider. Riders who benefit from equine therapy can have diagnoses that include cerebral palsy, autism, multiple sclerosis, stroke and language or learning disabilities.

Therapists began to take note of the therapeutic benefits of riding in 1952 after the Helsinki Olympic Games when Liz Hartel of Denmark won the silver medal for Grand Pris Dressage, though paralyzed from polio.

By the 1960s, therapeutic riding programs developed in Europe and the United States. In 1969 the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NAHRA) was founded and has since functioned as the advisory board for therapeutic riding programs across the country. Currently there are more than 700 NAHRA program centers in the US.

When James Brady, former Press Secretary to President Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt, part of his extensive physical therapy involved riding. As a result, the James S. Brady Therapeutic Riding Program was established in San Francisco.

Robbie Armstrong and his favorite equine friend, Rocky, at Milestones, Inc.

Photo by MICHELLE ARMSTRONG

Physical therapy for many

At Milestones, Inc. in Alexandria, roughly 50 children a year participate in the physical therapy program. Mary Lunn of Fort Mitchell, an occupational therapist and director of the facility, is seeing the awareness of equine therapy grow.

"We have a huge waiting list," Lunn says. "We own three horses one Icelandic, one paint horse, and one six-year-old, off-the-track thoroughbred, and we work with three to four kids at a time."

Because some of the riders are getting older, Lunn says they are looking for a new site to establish a group home.

Ten-year-old Robby Armstrong of Hebron has been a student at Milestones for five years. At eight months old, Armstrong suffered a severe stroke that left him unable to use his right arm as well as a seizure disorder. His mother, Michele, says she has seen huge developmental growth since he began riding.

"Whatever it is these horses are giving to these kids, Rocky has given him more," Armstrong says about Robby and his horse of choice.

As Armstrong sees it, the benefits of riding go beyond the physical improvements. With two sons in the program at Milestones she has had the opportunity to see a variety of developmental changes, both physical and emotional.

"Their speech has improved because of giving the horses commands," Armstrong says. "Emotional improvement is directly related to the horses," she says about Michael, 5. "Emotions run wild when he's not with the horses. He's such an animal lover anyway."

As a parent, Armstrong says that observing the 45-minute sessions provide a nice break.

"It's hard to find a sitter, so this is a break," Armstrong says. "You're watching, but the idea that for 45 minutes you don't have to worry about being hands on or behavior is a nice break."

Armstrong's sons participate once a week at the facility's six- to eight-week sessions.

"You can't put a price on what they get from it," she says

"We visited a place in Lexington where the riders are called resident farmers," Lunn says. "They grow produce and sell them to local markets. The residents are paid workers growing fruits and vegetables."

Lunn says they would like to find up to fifty acres to accommodate the facility.

Sessions at Milestones, Inc. are $20 per session, with sessions running 6 to 8 weeks. For more information on Milestones, Inc. call 859-694-7669, or e-mail .



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