Not just horse play: TherAplay uses hippotherapy to help children with special needs
By Mark Ambrogi
Jenna Todd has watched her son’s development flourish through horsepower.
Her 3-year-old son, Maxwell, is a patient at Children’s TherAplay, a nonprofit outpatient rehabilitation clinic for kids with special needs. TherAplay incorporates the movement of horses through hippotherapy into the physical and occupational therapies. It serves as a means of improving coordination and strength.
Maxwell, who has three genetic disorders, started at TherAplay when he was 18 months old.
“When he first got here all he could do was roll around, that’s how he got from place to place,” Todd said. “He had very low muscle tone, which affected his coordination. After starting here, he began to tolerate being on his hands and knees. He began crawling. Now he walks without his walker. He walks all over the place. He started preschool last week.
“We saw a pretty much immediate difference after starting therapy with the horses. His core strength improved, which led to his coordination and strength. He was able to pull himself up to stand.”
TherAplay provides treatment for many children who have cerebral palsy or autism.
Todd said the gait pattern of the horse is most similar to the human gait pattern.
“Positioning him different ways on the horse can help elicit different functions,” Todd said.
TherAplay has 11 therapy horses for children age 18 months to 13 years or up to 100 pounds, TherAplay executive director Hillary McCarley said.
“All the horses have a calm temperament,” said McCarley, who became the executive director in January. “They have to be continually worked. It’s a therapy that the kiddos love to come to.”
McCarley knows firsthand. Her son, Michael, was a patient for six years, starting at 2 and a half years old. He has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and low vision.
“When he came in, he could not walk or talk,” McCarley said. “He army crawled. He had no body awareness. Fast forward six years later, he’s sitting up on the horse. At the (TherAplay) graduation, he took 35 steps on his own.”
Michael, 17, walks with crutches but remains active at Carmel High School.
“He sings and dances with the choir,” McCarley said. “He’s come a long way.”
When the executive director’s job opened at TherAplay, McCarley knew it was a perfect fit. She was previously the major gifts officer at Methodist Health Foundation.
McCarley said TherAplay, which begins its 15th year in November, serves 160 families a year. For the Todds, Maxwell will be at TherAplay as long as he meets the requirements.
“TherAplay will be a part of our life for a long time,” said Todd, whose family lives in Fishers. “He doesn’t see it as therapy. He looks at it as time to see his therapist and play with the horses.”
Ryan Todd, Maxwell’s father, knows how much the horses mean to his son.
“I took him to the store to get a birthday present, and he wants nothing to do with superhero toys like most kids,” Ryan said. “I take him to the toy store and he wants play horses. They’re his best friends.”
Rocky’s the champ
There is no question who is the most popular horse at TherAplay. Rocky, a playful 23-year-old quarter horse, celebrated his 10th anniversary as a therapy horse in August. Rocky’s stall is filled with well-wishes from children.
“Before he came here, Rocky was barrel racer (in rodeos),” said Shannon Wade, TherAplay’s marketing programs manger. “He’s been such a treasure. Rocky has appointed himself equine ambassador. Rocky is just so gentle with the children.”
Rocky is TherAplay’s biggest horse, so he carries the bigger children. TherAplay officials estimate he has participated in about 4,800 physical and occupational therapy treatments.
Mane Event set
The Mane Event, a hoedown, is the signature fundraiser for the nonprofit. It is set for 6:30 to 11 p.m. Sept. 26 at TherAplay, 9119 Towne Rd. Alan Turner and the Steel Horse Band, which has opened for artists such as Kenny Rogers and Jason Aldean, will perform.
A professional line-dancing instructor will provide direction and there will be a mechanical bull-riding competition. The event will also include a live and silent auction. A 40-foot long saloon will feature area craft beers and other alcoholic beverages.
Tickets for the adult event (21 and older) are $100 through Sept. 19 and $125 after. For more information, visit childrenstheraplay.org/2015-hoe-down.