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Horse therapy & speech therapy combine to ease autism symptoms

Eddie Arlt interacts with Chrissy Daly, a speech language pathologist, during a session on Daly's horse, Becky. Arlt's mother Stacy said the therapy has improved his speech and behavioral skills.

COLUMBUS — When 5-year-old Eddie Arlt got "caught being good" at school several weeks ago, his mother Stacy Arlt could hardly believe his change in behavior.

“That is not something I had planned on him getting this year,” she said. “It was cause for celebration.”

Eddie has been diagnosed with several disorders — ADD, ADHD and executive function disorder — that affect his behavior, as well as his speech and language function. Two years ago, Arlt enrolled him in speech-language therapy that incorporates hippotherapy that she credits, at least in part, for his transformation. She is so convinced of its benefits that even during a time when her insurer quit covering his sessions, she paid for them out of pocket.

“He’s a very smart kid, but he couldn’t communicate,” she said. “Before, he communicated more with actions than words. Now, he’s using more words than actions.”

Hippotherapy (“hippo” derives from the Greek word for “horse”) refers to the use of the movement of a horse as a treatment strategy for physical, occupational and even speech-language therapy.

With more than 40 years of history to back it up, the technique is recognized by the American Physical Therapy Association, the American Occupational Therapy Association and the American Speech and Hearing Association.

It differs from “therapeutic” riding, which is aimed at improving riding skills or quality of life for individuals with special needs.

“It’s not about riding, it’s about the movement they’re getting from the horse,” said Chrissy Daly, Eddie’s therapist.

She serves as a speech and language pathologist for the Stillwater Sweet Grass Educational Cooperative and uses hippotherapy in her private business Daly Communication Speech-Language Therapy. Daly has six years’ experience in speech and language pathology and first worked with horses in therapy a decade ago during college. Her focus includes autism spectrum disorders, which she said, "is one disorder that often sees many benefits from hippotherapy because of the sensory component."

The theory behind hippotherapy, Daly said, is that some children need a consistent pattern of motion, which seems to transfer from the horse to the human during sessions.

The movement not only helps develop greater postural strength and control for the child, but it helps with sensory-processing issues and motor planning.

“With hippotherapy, we’re trying to help build the sensory and physical systems and when those are functioning more cohesively, you can target goals for speech and language,” she said.

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