Equine therapy aids kids

Andrea Alexander
During her weekly ride at Vallee Farms, Brooke Arnold, 16, and a victim of cerebral palsy since birth, receives assistance from Carol Vallee, right, and Laura and Amanda Wolff. Vallee is owner of an equine therapy operation and Laura and Amanda are two of her assistants.

On a recent cool night of spring, commotion was astir in the barn at Vallee Farms in Prairieville.

Ronnie and Carol Vallee, owners of an equine therapy operation housed on many acres of gently sloping pastureland and white picket fences, couldn’t sleep that night. That’s because the couple was captivated by sounds of horses kicking, biting, jumping and whining in their stalls.

Two new horses had been added to the fold earlier that day, and now the three mares and three geldings were fighting it out to establish a new pecking order.

By morning, the horses were calm and orderly, ready for interaction with the special needs/disabled kids who thrive on interaction with them. No signs of the night’s unrest remained.

Carol busied herself around the barn, doing routine chores and preparing for the day’s first rider.

One of the new horses, Sierra, needed her daily 10 aspirin to soothe an eye inflammation.

Stormie, a horse purchased along with a buggy from an Amish farmer, was contentedly munching hay, the only horse on the premises that isn’t used for therapy but for pulling a carriage.

Soon, Marissa Savoy, one of Carol’s helpers, showed up to groom Charlie, who would be carrying the day’s first rider, Ben Gaspard.

This was 6-year-old Ben’s birthday, and he intended to live it up. Today, he and Charlie were going to hunt Easter eggs. He walked toward the barn, slowly but with determination, with a little help from his mother.

A few minutes later, Ben was mounted on Charlie (who wore Easter Bunny ears for the occasion), being led around a fenced-off area by Melissa. With Carol walking alongside, supporting Ben’s lower back with her hand, Ben flashed a toothy grin at his mother. He was clearly in his element.

After a few minutes of riding, Ben gave up being still and couldn’t resist leaning forward to give Charlie a hug, burying his face in Charlie’s mane. Charlie started to trot, and Ben gasped with glee. Carol’s husband Ronnie showed up to join the procession. Ben reached over to tousle Ronnie’s hair. With so much stimulation, it was hard not to be playful.

Ben is only one of Carol’s special needs students who has greatly benefited from the interaction, discipline, and physical challenge of equine therapy. Born with “cri-du-chat” syndrome, Ben was unable to walk until he started horse therapy at the age of 3. Two years later, he had evolved into a strong walker.

Carol’s students range from 18 months to 16 years old, having various disabling conditions like spina bifida, cornelia delang syndrome, autism, and muscular dystrophy. In their half-hour lessons, these children benefit not only from the physical demands of riding a horse – sitting upright and maintaining erect posture, for example – but from the soothing, rocking gait of the horse, and from the one-on-one personal interaction with horse and therapist.

“Kids get physically stronger in their legs and back,” Carol said. “Kids with communication problems like autism start opening up more. For hyperactive children, the steady motion of the horse has a calming effect, and also helps them concentrate better.”

Carol rides with several of the children for their lessons. The kids enjoy the riding lessons for reasons other than personal interaction, though. Carol arranges many games for them that involve the horses as well. Easter egg hunts, golf on horseback, horse painting, and water play keep the kids entertained while helping them improve physical coordination and strength.

Carol was a licensed physical therapist in the Ascension Parish school system for 21 years before she retired, so her experience with helping children learn new skills reaches far back. “Even as a physical therapist, I saw students at school who improved because of the horse therapy activities they were involved in. That’s what got me interested in doing this,” Carol says. “It’s a hobby for them. A lot of these kids can’t do normal activities, like playing sports, so this is fun. It’s also a family thing: Mom, Dad, and the siblings hang out together at these lessons.”

Carol has noted significant improvement in posture, balance, coordination, concentration, communication, and social skills, as well as other motor skills.

Studies consistently show that animal therapy – equine therapy, in particular, but also dog therapy and dolphin therapy – significantly improves various disabilities and disorders. These may include spina bifida, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, attention deficit disorder, stroke, visual impairment, spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, multiple sclerosis, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, behavioral disorders, mental and emotional health problems, learning disorders, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, communication disorders, amputation, and seizure disorders.

Animal therapy, even for 10 or 15 minutes, has a positive biochemical effect: it increases the endorphins level and decreases the cortisol (the “stress” hormone) level in the body.

For emotionally troubled or socially challenged children, animal therapy can restore a positive self-image and ability to trust because of the animal’s unconditional affection. Children can learn that feeling negative emotions (while engaged in work) such as frustration is natural and can be dealt with constructively, not destructively.

At the same time, an animal’s reaction to negative emotions can teach children that their emotions and behavior do affect others. Animals resist aggressive behavior, so children can learn more effective (quiet, gentle) ways of treating others.

Learning to care for a horse introduces children to the importance of being responsible and of caring for other beings. Scheduling tasks (grooming, feeding, haltering) enables children to function more effectively by way of structure and teaches them to stick to a schedule.

Because it offers a fun, rewarding environment for kids to develop skills and address problems, horse therapy appeals to kids more than a sterile counselor’s office. Children don’t experience lying, manipulation, abuse, or rejection with animals, so they are more encouraged to open up and “talk” to animals if they’re troubled or nonverbal. It’s a safe place for them to make mistakes and be vulnerable.

There are mental and cognitive aspects of caring for horse that build a child’s self-confidence: for example, they enhance their problem-solving and decision-making skills. Riding and caring for a horse also requires focus, concentration, discipline, and attention – all skills these children may be lacking.

The physical advantages are plenty. Hand-eye coordination and muscle tone are significant areas of improvement for children in horse therapy. Children learn to walk properly from the rocking motion of a horse’s gait, which mimics that of the human pelvis.

How and when a child responds to animal therapy cannot be predicted, and improvement is not guaranteed. However, improvement is very likely, according to the experts.

Vallee Farms’ equine therapy program is making that progress possible for a small number of lucky children. At the very least, spending a day outdoors, riding a horse on a splendid ranch with gorgeous views, is not a bad way for a kid to spend a day. Not bad at all.

From left, Tracy Murray, Laura Wolff and Amanda Wolff groom Charlie, the horse that Brooke Arnold rides during her sessions at the Vallee Farm equine therapy operation. The girls attend area schools. Tracy plans to attend LSU in the fall and study to be a veterinarian.