Licensed and credentialed therapists provide conventional speech, occupational and physical therapy integrated with innovative strategies such as hippotherapy, animal-assisted therapy and horticulture therapy to accelerate rehabilitation for functional living.
The peaceful natural setting, talents and affections of 26 therapy animals who live at Nature’s Edge, and gardens, forest trails, river, pond and hills of the ranch are incorporated into practical, comprehensive therapy goals that target functional outcomes for patients with disabilities.
The clinic and its focus on animal-assisted therapy was the brainchild of Becky Payne, Nature’s Edge’s Speech-Language Pathologist and director. An avid horsewoman herself, she had previously invited patients to her ranch and noted an improvement in speech-language interactions when they were outdoors and around the animals.
How horses help
Patients with autism may receive treatment at Nature’s Edge through outpatient therapy and through its intensive therapy program — whether for ongoing treatment or for occasional treatment for short periods of time.
“Hippotherapy is used at Nature’s Edge as an integrated treatment strategy for speech, occupational and physical therapy,” says Nature’s Edge’s Sherry Borstad.
“While hippotherapy is beneficial for many disorders, it is appropriate especially for children and young people with autism and/or Asperger’s Syndrome.
“In a therapy session that uses hippotherapy as a strategy, the patient is engaged in activities on the horse that are enjoyable and challenging. The speech, occupational or physical therapist addresses specific functional goals by utilising different positions for the patient such as sitting or laying forward, backward or sideways, standing in the stirrups, or riding without using hands.
“The patient may also be asked to stretch, reach or play games while on the horse. The therapist continuously analyses the patient’s response and adjusts the horse’s movement accordingly for optimum treatment benefits.”
Benefits of incorporating hippotherapy include the foundational applications which come from the horse’s movement.
The structure of the horse’s pelvis, similar to the human pelvis, transfers the variable, rhythmic and repetitive movement of the walking or trotting horse directly to the patient, challenging and improving postural control.
“Research has shown that the patient receives at least 100 impulses per minute from a horse at a steady walk,” Sherry adds.
“That movement also stimulates the neural activity of the patient’s body, alerting and increasing respiration and attention.
“Decreased postural control is often displayed in patients with autism which impacts both fine and gross motor abilities and planning and execution of motor sequencing.
“Decreased postural control also contributes to difficulties in language and communication, social engagement and play. Improvements in postural control through hippotherapy can increase functional abilities and participation in daily activities.”
The results have been astounding since Day 1. The first ever patient at the clinic’s intensive therapy centre, Diane’s House, was a 10-year-old girl called Alexis, who had been diagnosed with autism at four years old. This young girl was nonverbal and needed help with basic daily activities. She also had sensory issues and difficulty in social situations, combined with the fears for her safety.
During her week at Diane’s House she received speech, occupational, and physical therapy integrated with activities such as music, art, and time outdoors and with treatment strategies including hippotherapy, horticulture therapy and animal-assisted therapy.
She grew in confidence to try things she wasn’t previously willing to try at home, making significant progress in speech and matters such as sleeping patterns. Her parents were staggered by the progress Alexis made at Diane’s House, saying it gave them “new hope”.
“This kind of therapy has every opportunity to address the patient through a complete and integrated method,” says Sherry.
“We strongly believe that the integrative approach employed at Nature’s Edge not only makes therapy on our ranch unique, but it also invests patients and families with functional skills and strategies for increased independence and integration well beyond those provided by traditional programs.
“Success is to see skills learned in therapy carry over into everyday living. Success is to see a patient develop in independence and integration in spheres of living including homelife, academic settings and community.”
The therapy herd
The horses used in hippotherapy and equine-assisted therapy at Nature’s Edge are specially selected and trained. Each horse must demonstrate a steady and engaging temperament and execute the three gaits (walk, trot, canter) with proficiency in a collected and forward-moving manner.
The therapy herd consists of three Paints (Bacardi, Boomer and Callie), one Quarter Horse (Misty), two Icelandics (Svali and Gymir), two Gypsy Vanners (Simba and Chloe), one Fjord (Valebu) and one Miniature (Pride).
The well-being of the horses is very important, with Nature’s Edge surpassing animal wellness guidelines. All therapy horses retire at Nature’s Edge and live out their lives on its 65-acre ranch.
“Only sound, healthy and well-trained horses can be considered for hippotherapy,” Sherry says. “The Nature’s Edge herd represents a variety of breeds, sizes and builds which enable us to match each patient with a horse appropriate in terms of size, pace, gait and character.
“All are prepared for their unique role in therapy sessions and are guided by professional horse handlers which optimises safety and effectiveness.”