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Patients use horses for physical therapy

Published: Thursday, November 29, 2012

Updated: Thursday, November 29, 2012 16:11


Caitlin LaFarlette, Staff Photographer

For his physical therapy, Jeff Keich rides his horse around the ASU Equine Center with the help of a group of students.

Roy Aldridge, professor of physical therapy, is the head of the hippotherapy program at ASU. He became involved with hippotherapy, which uses horses for physical therapy, while working with a graduate student who had an interest in it.

The most rewarding aspect of the ASU hippotherapy program is “to see patients accomplish things that folks never thought they could do,” said its director.

The program at ASU began in 2002 and has been at the equine center since 2005.  
Aldridge works not only with adult patients, but with children as well. Some patients who receive therapy are autistic, and sensory stimuli such as the sound of the horses, different smells and other outside sounds add to their therapy.

War veterans also come in to participate.

Some of these veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder. The program helps them reconnect with society.

“I’ve seen some great personality changes,” Aldridge said.

One patient, 35-year-old Maurice Watson, said he enjoys getting to ride as part of therapy.

“How else would I get to ride a horse for free?” he asked.

Watson is in the hippotherapy program for lower back pain. He said riding has helped his range of motion and gets his back more limber.

Before entering physical therapy, Watson had no experience riding horses.

“This is new and it is good,” he said.

The actual therapy portion of the program comes from the movement of the horse. The change of positions of the rider and the speed of the horse also contribute to the therapy.

Different saddles, Western and English, are used depending on the type of injury. For example, Western saddles are used for veterans, and those with lower back pain do not require a lot of motion from the horse. Other variables include feet in or out of the stirrups and hands on or off of the saddle horn.

Aldridge also positions riders in different ways, including sitting sideways, backwards, and for one patient, on hands and knees without a saddle.

Aldridge doesn’t choose just any horse for the program. He said a horse has to have the right kind of personality and is also evaluated for soundness. Each horse moves differently, and the range of motion a patient needs determines which horse is chosen.

Students can also benefit from the program.

MacKenzie Dow, a graduate student of Jonesboro, is a physical therapy student volunteering for Aldridge.

“This is part of my class now,” Dow said about how the hippotherapy relates to physical therapy.

Dow said she started volunteering when Aldridge asked for help. She began working with kids first and is now volunteering with the veterans’ program.

For Dow the best part of volunteering is seeing the patients improve and asking about their day.

“You really get a bond and connection with them,” she said.

Chelsey Moser, a senior exercise science major of Melbourne, said she enjoyed gaining experience through volunteering.    
She became involved with hippotherapy after talking to her adviser about opportunities for volunteer experience. She said the best part of the program is knowing there are no set guidelines.

“It’s a lot of fun seeing the patients’ reactions to the horses,” she said.

There are six volunteers and 12 graduate students working with the hippotherapy program. Aldridge has collected data on 25 veterans since the program began.

For those interested in volunteering, contact Aldridge at raldridge@astate.

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