Timmy Langer, 6, of Irwin, pauses before cleaning the hooves of Buddy at Nickers 'n Neighs, a therapeutic riding center in Westmoreland County. Timmy, who has autism, learns to ride and take care of horses at the center, a nonprofit that uses horses to promote cognitive, social and emotional well-being for people who have disabilities.
Abby Langer, 8, of Irwin rides on 6-year-old Starlight with help from Stacy Shirer, Pam Burkland and Jennifer Harbaugh at Nickers 'n Neighs.
By Annie Tubbs Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For some children and teens who have disabilities, the best part of their day is spent on a horse.
Kelly Jones of Jeannette has been bringing her son, Quinn Kopas, 8, to Nickers 'n Neighs, a nonprofit therapeutic riding center in Westmoreland County, for about a year. Quinn, who has Down syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder, rides once a week.
"There's a kind of calming factor for him," Ms. Jones said, adding that Quinn talks about the horses at home.
"It's something that engages him. I think he feels success doing it."
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Quinn's attention span and core strength have improved, Ms. Jones said.
"It's been a very positive experience," she said.
A good track record
Therapeutic horseback riding has been around for decades, and experts and parents can provide anecdotal evidence for how it helps their patients and children with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities.
Now, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are trying to show definitively the benefits of equine-facilitated therapeutics.
Margo B. Holm, an occupational therapist, and Nancy Minshew, an autism researcher and neurologist, have teamed up to study the therapy and how it can benefit children with disabilities.
When the study began, Ms. Holm was skeptical.
"Everything in my mind was that this was a bit of hocus-pocus," she said. "I no longer believe that after watching and seeing the changes."
The initial study is small - three boys between the ages of 6 and 8, all of whom have autism spectrum disorders. The study is being conducted at Nickers 'n Neighs in Donegal Township.
Ms. Holm, who specializes in "single-subject research design," said she's trying to unearth whether the frequency of therapeutic horseback riding lessons makes a difference when incorporating riding into a child's other activities.
"What if there was a summer program for children with autism that would be offered at the end of the extended school year? ... Should it be once a week, three times a week or five times a week?" she said.
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Throughout July, the boys involved in the study all had one therapeutic horseback riding lesson a week. This month, in the "dosing phase," one boy will continue to have one session per week, one will have three sessions per week, and the third will have five sessions per week. In September, the "withdrawal phase," all of the boys will go back to once-a-week sessions.
In addition to researchers monitoring the children during their lessons, parents are identifying the frequency of positive and negative behaviors and recording them for the study. They report their findings to researchers weekly.
"It's an intense program for the parents as well," Ms. Holm said.
The parents are responsible for identifying when negative behaviors occur frequently at home or in the community - at church, out shopping or while socializing.
A child conversing with family members would be an example of a positive behavior, while yelling or flapping his hands would be a negative behavior.
After the study is finished, Ms. Holm will analyze the data to see whether the negative behavior decreased and positive behavior increased during the dosing phase and determine if the behavior changed during the withdrawal phase.
"This is basically a pilot to see what we're learning," Ms. Holm said.
"Do I see changes in the children from when they enter the arena and when they're on the horses? Yes. Very distinctly."
But the study is trying to determine whether the children's change in behavior is just chance, if frequency of lessons makes a difference, and if the impact in the children's behavior extends beyond the riding lesson.
Lin Podolinsky, executive director at Nickers 'n Neighs, has a degree in equine-facilitated therapeutics from Wilson College and holds certifications from the Pennsylvania Council on Therapeutic Horsemanship and the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship.
Nickers 'n Neighs was chosen because of Ms. Podolinsky's qualifications, Ms. Holm said.
Ms. Podolinsky designs lesson plans for the center's 90 students and considers herself and the other instructors as "special ed riding instructors."
Private lessons and larger classes of eight to 12 riders are also available. The children don't ride all at once. In a classroom that was added to the indoor arena and stable last fall, teachers can instruct students in class work while Ms. Podolinsky takes children individually for riding lessons.
Nickers 'n Neighs has offered therapeutic lessons since 2008, and Ms. Podolinsky is working to make sure the facility meets the standards of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The center has specially designed steps and ramps to help physically disabled students get on and off the horses. Adults walk on each side of the horses during the entire ride to ensure each rider's safety.
Nickers 'n Neighs employs one full-time instructor in addition to Ms. Podolinsky and three assistants. "Lots and lots" of volunteers help with maintaining the facility and the horses, Ms. Podolinsky said. A one-hour lesson is $25, which is supplemented by donations.
Although the current Pitt study hopes to quantify the benefits of therapeutic riding, anecdotal evidence abounds that it does.
Beth Langer of Irwin takes her daughter Abby, 8, and son Timmy, 6, to weekly lessons at Nickers 'n Neighs. Both children have autism spectrum disorders, and Ms. Langer said she's noticed behavioral improvements in both of them.
"She's had incredible improvement in her core strength," Ms. Langer said, noting that Abby's posture and attention span have improved.
As part of the Pitt study, Timmy will take riding lessons three times a week this month. Mrs. Langer said Timmy had a tendency to pound things and clap his hands, and the horseback riding curbed those behaviors, although he was scared the first time they put him in a stall with a horse.
"Some of our students are very fearful at first," Ms. Podolinsky said. She introduces children to the animal first by putting the student in a stall with the horse, then having the child touch and groom it, and finally the child sits on the animal and rides it. In addition to riding, students learn how to clean stalls and saddles, and Ms. Podolinsky teaches them how to groom the horse and instructs them on basic horse health care.
Stretching muscles, boosting confidence
A therapeutic riding center called Riding for the Handicapped of Western Pennsylvania Inc., which operates out of Park View Riding Academy in McCandless, has offered equine-facilitated therapeutics since 1979.
The nonprofit, all-volunteer program has about 82 students who ride twice a week and a waiting list of about three years for its free therapeutic riding classes, director T.M. "Toots" Abbott said.
"For the physically challenged, it's all about the stretching and working the muscles that can't be worked," Mrs. Abbott said.
"Emotionally, it gives the rider a lot of confidence," she said. "They're doing something other kids can't do."
Despite the benefits, some conditions prevent disabled children from participating in therapeutic riding. A child's physician must give the OK before a child can ride, Ms. Podolinsky said.
For example, atlantoaxial instability, which causes an increased flexibility between the first and second bones of the neck, could cause a severe problem if the child or teen is jarred while riding a horse, Ms. Podolinsky said.
Dr. Minshew, the autism expert at Pitt, said that children with autism spectrum disorders benefit from the confidence boost that comes with horseback riding.
She said autistic children tend to be afraid of change, and changing the saddle, horse, helper or instructor gives them the confidence to make changes.
"Let's hope that when they're in school and they get new textbooks or change seats or ... the teacher is different, they'll get the idea that it's like riding a horse - it's still fun," Dr. Minshew said.
Vickie Green's son William, 6, is one of the participants in the study. William was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, an autism spectrum disorder, and began attending weekly classes at Nickers 'n Neighs with an autism support class with the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit in October 2009.
As part of the study, he will have a therapeutic riding lesson five times a week this month.
Ms. Green said she hopes the researchers learn more about the benefits of therapeutic riding.
William is more communicative at home, his attention span has improved and "his language development has come a long way," she said.
"It seems like these horses have a connection with these children."