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Using equine therapy to help children with cognitive disabilities

Using equine therapy to help children with autism, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and moreJessica Moore is a physical therapist assistant who wanted to focus her professional life on children with disabilities. She also is a horse lover. 
It makes perfect sense then that Moore uses equine therapy in her work with kids with a myriad of cognitive disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury. Moore is the founder and executive director of McKenna Farms, a nonprofit that serves some 500 kids a week on 17 acres in Paulding County. The nonprofit has an outpatient clinic in a converted Civil War-era farmhouse and some 15 horses. “There is an incredible bond created when a horse and a human being connect that provides a therapeutic component like no other,” Moore said.
Q: What’s your background and why did you start McKenna Farms?
A: When I was in college, I started volunteering in different programs that combined physical therapy and horses and I fell in love with that. After graduation, I lived in Montana and worked at a facility that also used horses. I also bought a horse and her name is McKenna. After I moved to Atlanta, I started using McKenna to treat patients in West Cobb and East Paulding. I never dreamed this would get so big.
Q: Why did it?
A: When I started in 2000, there were a lot of families moving to the area but not a lot of services for children with special needs. We now have 38 staff — 25 physical, occupational and speech therapists — and some 200 volunteers who clean stalls, turn the horses out and are trained to help be the lead for therapy sessions. Also, we have a lot of activities and therapy sessions outside. The kids love being around other kids, nature and horses.
Q: What is so special about therapy with a horse?
A: A horse’s movement is very similar to the human gait. For instance, if you have a child who had a stroke at birth that caused them to be paralyzed on one side, placing them in different positions on a horse elicits different movements and strengthens different parts of the body. I can take a child to the gym and do exercises all day long but when I get them on that horse, they come alive.
Q: What about the bond between the animal and the child?
A: Animals, in general, are very therapeutic. I think a horse makes children feel trusted, accepted and confident. Horses are very aware and insightful about our personalities. They know when we are nervous and sad. I have witnessed many times when a horse interacts with children who are nonverbal. It is amazing to see that interaction.