Jerome and Applejack, the therapy horses at the Paws and Hooves Project from Wag-ville in Bangalore, enjoy working with special needs individuals. One of Applejack’s favourite students is Anil, a six-year-old child diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. When Anil first came to us about a month ago, he had severe spasticity in his arms and legs – Anil could neither walk nor sit independently. Today, he sits on Applejack with a specially designed saddle that has a seat-belts to enable him to sit upright.
The movement on the horse, combined with physiotherapy exercises done while seated on the horse have enabled Anil to not only loosen the spasticity in his arms and legs, but also gain strength and balance in his upper body, helping him now sit independently with little support. Not just that, but Anil enjoys his time with the horses and eagerly waits for each session.
While Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a fairly new concept in India, most people who are aware of this are only able to relate it to treatment of psychological issues. However, the reach of AAT is far beyond applications for just mental health issues, and this has been proven through applications of AAT for treating neuro- and physio- related issues like Cerebral Palsy, Down’s Syndrome, Multiple Sclerosis and even strokes for over 40 years in many countries – especially the US and UK.
Hippotherapy, or equine-assisted therapy, helps accomplish therapeutic objectives such as improving balance, muscle tone and coordination. A study conducted by Stellenbosch University, SA in 2013 described the benefits of Hippotherapy. It concludes that when the horse moves, its centre of gravity changes threedimensionally and its movement simulates the movement of a person’s pelvis during ambulation.
Horses provide sensory stimulation to muscles and joints (called proprioception), and impact the balance and movement sense detected by sensory receptors in the inner ear (called the vestibular system) while also providing tactile (touch) experiences as the rider hugs or pats the horse.
Individuals with Cerebral Palsy or Multiple Sclerosis benefit from such activities and exercises focussed on building balance and strength, while children with autism also benefit from the ability to create emotional bonds with the horse, are soon able to make eye contact, as well as develop language and cognition skills.
Fine or gross motor skills issues which often accompany such conditions also can be worked upon through Hippotherapy. For example, a child with fine motor skill issues can benefit greatly from activities such as grooming or tacking a horse, whereas a child with balance issues will benefit from sitting and riding a horse.
Similarly, activities involving dogs (canine assisted therapy) can be used to help address fine motor skill development issues (like grooming a dog), developing range of motion (like throwing a ball or toy for a dog to fetch), or giving dogs commands can aid in speech therapy.
Some months ago, our therapy dog Bella had worked with a 72-year-old gentleman who had suffered a stroke, leaving him immobile, with impairment in fine and gross motor skills in hands, as well as speech impairment. Within two months of specially designed activities with Bella, he can now throw a ball across a room, button his shirt, brush the dog, is able to hold a tea-cup, and most importantly enjoys time outdoors with the dog.
Any form of Animal Assisted Therapy, whether canine or equine assisted, cannot be performed in isolation. In order to be effective, each case needs to be evaluated from a psychological as well as physical perspective, and therapeutic activities are to be developed and administered in consultation or under the guidance of neurologists, psychiatrists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and psychologists as necessary.
What to keep in mind when considering AAT
- Ensure a doctor (specialist) gives a go-ahead with regard to the mental or physical state of the individual for undergoing AAT
- Ensure that the providers of AAT are certified practitioners
- AAT practitioners should work along with, or consult doctors and professional therapists, while developing AAT activities for individuals with special needs as necessary
Animals being used for AAT activities should be professionally trained (as we do not have organisations that certify therapy animals in India)
[This article is co-authored by Rachel Isaac, Physiotherapist and co-founder of the Paws and Hooves Project from Wag-ville.]