Sunday, February 21, 2010

Animal Assisted Therapy

In April I am offering a course at the University of Almería and helping them write a book in Spanish on the benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy. This field has been very slow starting in Spain but has now become very popular and I felt that there were a few basic guides I could provide from my years of experience. ANIMO does not offer its practical side anymore but we still give technical advice to other centers.

It is a privilege to have or to ride a horse. The horse is a very strong and majestic animal but at the same time very delicate. Just a simple change in their food can cause colic, which can be fatal or leave them foundered. Foundering comes from changing food like from dry food to being put in a lush pasture and it separates the soft part of the hoof from the hard part. This makes the horse walk on his heels because of the severe pain. They then begin to use the wrong muscles to compensate. Unless cared for properly and promptly, it can take years to improve or it may never get better and the horse will always have a limp. So there are many things to think about before you buy a horse. They need good clean food, clean housing and good hygiene, lots of exercise, a turn-out area and most of all lots of love and attention. All of this comes at a price both financial and in time. It is not cheap to have a horse or even to go to classes. However the benefits of riding a horse are so great and every day they are discovering new benefits that the horse can offer us. For this reason it is important that we continue the research and make horses more accessible to everyone. Not only the disabled, where we already know about the benefits, but to everyone. Even medical doctors are starting to study different aspects of the horse-man relationship.

The benefits that animals can provide people have been known for a long time. Just stroking a cat can relieve the pain of arthritis and help relieve stress or riding a horse improves your circulation while at the same time massaging your organs and muscles. There have been very few studies on the benefit riding a horse can have on depression, stress and the menopause. I did a small informal test using my volunteers. We found that out of twenty women, in every case a noticeable difference was made. They all felt less depressed, had more energy and basically just felt happier. I just read a new medical study on the benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy and mentioned in the article was a section on how riding can lower your level of triglycerides. Triglycerides change fat into energy for your muscles. I found out the positive results from my own case just recently. I rode every day for three weeks and my triglyceride level dropped by half. Two-hundred is the top level in a healthy human being and my level was over four-hundred. After riding every day for three weeks it dropped to close to two-hundred, other blood work improved as well.

After working with all types of disabilities and many different types of animal therapy, I decided to concentrate mostly on hippotherapy, which is the medical side of riding therapy. I saw such a change in the students not just physical but mental. It is basically physiotherapy on horse-back, letting the movement of the horse work on areas that the disabled person is not able to achieve in any other way. It is also something that should be included in their regular therapy not done instead of.

Every country and every center have their own methods of working and training the staff and animals. Hippotherapy is different just like styles of riding are different. In our center we had the students ride bare-back. We felt that we got better results from the direct contact or sometimes we used a sheep-skin to help keep students from getting burns or wounds which in some students never heal and can even lead to amputation. That is why it is so important to have a medical certificate before the student ever even goes near the horse and why the classes usually start at around five minutes and work up to around forty-five minutes. There are specially designed saddles with movable parts to help support different parts of the body but we found over all that bareback was the best for our students. Only three of our forty students ever used a bridle and that was because they had enough body control to do so. We usually used a halter and lead line. My grand daughter says riding bare-back helps keep your bottom warm and she is right. We used so many different positions on the horse that a saddle would have just been in the way. We had students facing all different directions, lying down, walking barefoot while the horse was at a walk and around the world just to name a few. Most of our students had such severe physical disabilities that they needed some one to back-ride in order to hold them in the correct position and help them with their exercises. It is very important that your team is experienced with horses because even something as simple as leading wrong can change the whole muscular system of the horse there by not conveying the correct message to the brain and body of the rider. It is important that you try to use both sides of the horse equally. We had one student, a young adult left partially paralysed from a motor-cycle accident who always leant to one side, so we would try and put a cute young helper on his bad side to try and get him to use it more. It was quite an effective strategy. During a session the work is very slow and boring for the horse making figures of eight and serpentines and little circles. After several students the horse may become bored and start acting up a bit this is why it is very important that before each class the horse has a good work-out or gallop in the country-side.

The words that we use in this field change from country to country, and depend on the time for what words are politically correct. It is incorrect now to say that you use an animal for a task because in some countries this signifies mistreatment, you have to say incorporate the animal in the task. I think the correct term for your students, regardless of their disability, is ‘challenged’. They may be visually, physically or mentally challenged etc. Or some times they are referred to as ‘special needs students’. These two expressions seem to cover everyone without offering any offence.

The Center:
If you are planning on starting a center there are a few things you need to keep in mind.
1. Have a good insurance policy that covers the animals as well as students and helpers.
2. Have all parents sign a waver allowing the use of any photographs or videos.
3. Get a complete medical history and have a medical exam before beginning class.
4. Have healthy sound animals.
5. Make sure the center is wheel-chair accessible and that there is a bathroom. All students should ride on an empty bladder. This is very important.
6. Decide on the type of center you want to have and the type of student you want to teach.
7. Where will you get your financing, as this is an expensive consideration.
8. Staff: Physiotherapist, doctor, riding instructor, veterinarian, stable hands and aides.

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