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Horse Riding Provides Therapeutic Respite

New Heights Therapy Center offers a unique treatment option for people with disabilities and special needs in South Louisiana. The Folsom-based center connects participants with the experience of horse riding as a form of therapeutic interaction.

On a sunny Saturday morning, fifteen-year-old Louis Knights took the reigns of a tan mare named Sonny and gently led her into the arena, with the help of his instructor.

Louis has taken lessons at New Heights Therapy Center for about eight years. He has an autism spectrum disorder, which means he struggles with social interaction, emotional connections and eye contact. Instructors said connecting with animals could provide good training.

Louis’s dad, Robert Knights, said he is not sure how the therapy helps his son, but he is always in a better mood after riding, “I hope that he becomes a better person from the experience,” said Knights. “I don’t think that there’s any intellectual benefit, although I can’t rule that out, I’m not an expert in this area, but I’m fairly certain that this is beneficial.”

New Heights executive director Stephen Engro was new to horses when he started the job a few years ago. He said learning how to ride gave him some good insights into what his clients were experiencing and achieving.

Engro said, “My vision of horse riding was based on an old western. So here I’m thinking ‘I get to ride a horse!’ I figure I’m gonna jump on a horse and I’m gonna go tearing through the fields, jumping over trees, through streams. But no - I’m in an arena and the lesson was difficult!”

Research has shown that equine therapy, also known as “hippotherapy,” can be helpful for everything from improving motor skills to forming social bonds.

Riding instructor and occupational therapist, Sue Yancey, said the stride of the horse naturally mimics the human gait, so it can help people with disabilities like cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy develop better balance, core control and motor skills.

She believes it can also help people who have a hard time bonding emotionally with other people. Yancey quoted Winston Churchill, saying, “‘There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of the man.’ And for some reason, horses...really evoke a feeling of companionship and I’ve seen people who don’t bond with other people, like autistic spectrum riders, bond with their horse."

Yancey said she has seen major transformations at the stables. One of her clients is an eight-year-old with Downs Syndrome. After not speaking most her childhood, she has started to open up.

Yancey explained, “She’s starting to say ‘go.’ We’re also working on ‘up/down,’ putting her arms up while she’s on the horse or reaching up to get a toy while she’s on the horse. Or counting, as she teaches her horse to walk around ground poles.”

Yancey said these changes can be very powerful for families. One mom cried when she first heard her daughter speak while riding.

That is part of the reason volunteers are compelled to come back week after week, to shovel manure, clean stalls and brush the horses. Pierre Saal worked as a psychotherapist for 28 years and says he feels good when he sees riders improve.

Saal said, “Over the weeks you get to see them become more confident in what they’re doing and the instructor keeps pushing them to do more and more and more. You can see the child, or rider, because a lot of them are adults, respond to that. So it’s a great satisfaction.”

It can also provide a refreshing alternative to traditional therapies. Many riders with disabilities have gone through occupational and physical therapy for years.

“It might just be in an office and they’re being stretched on a table and what have you, you know, what a beautiful change that they can get the same efficacy from coming out to this beautiful farm and riding a horse,” said Engro.

Robert Knights said he’ll continue bringing Louis as long as he enjoys it.

New Heights has about 70 clients now but they aim to double that. Engro says they are also developing a collaboration with the New Orleans Police Department in order to serve veterans and at-risk youth in the New Orleans area.

Support for Northshore Focus comes from the Northshore Community Foundation.

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