MONTGOMERY – A small gaggle of students, all smiles, crowd around a tiny pony on a field at Montgomery Elementary School.
To the casual observer, it looks more like a scene from a birthday party featuring a traveling petting zoo than a therapy session; but these students are all learning how to conquer some of the physical, mental and emotional challenges associated with disabilities.
Valley Central Occupational Therapist Trisha LaFronz, MA, OTR/L and owner of Helping Hooves Therapy brings her therapy horses to visit special education students once per month at Montgomery Elementary School and the Alternative Learning Center as part of Valley Central’s HPOT (Hippotherapy Occupational, Physical, Speech Therapy) program.
According to the American Hippotherapy Association, hippotherapy is a treatment strategy which uses equine movement to achieve functional goals. Valley Central School District is the only public district in the county to offer such a program to its students.
As far as the students are concerned, it’s just a fun day learning how to groom, lead and feed four-year old miniature pony, Buster.
“I like making styles in his hair,” student Amy Lind said, confidently navigating a grooming brush through Buster’s mane.
Buster’s “big brother” Billy, also visits the students for therapy sessions and when he is there, students also have the opportunity to ride.
The benefits of equine therapy are significant, according to Ms. LaFronz, helping students with all different needs to improve fine and gross motor skills, while building confidence and impulse control. Students who have limited mobility are able to ride. Students on the autism spectrum become more verbal and improve their social skills and eye contact.
“Children on the autism spectrum are very intuitive to input, just as a horse is,” Ms. LaFronz said. “They’re very in sync with the horses’ emotions – the horse has a calm demeanor and so the students become more calm when they interact with him.”
Older students at the Alternative Learning Center struggling with anxiety transform from being afraid, to confidently grooming, feeding and riding the horses.
“At the beginning, the anxiety-ridden students were very afraid of the horses, Ms. LaFronz said. “But, now they all get on Billy to ride. They use the horse as a community catalyst for conversation and improve their social skills and build confidence and self-esteem.”
“I like riding him,” Valley Central student Liam Gallagher exclaimed when asked to share his favorite part of the program.
As the session wraps up and the students file inside, students in mainstream classes pour out of the doors on their way to recess and quickly cluster around the horse chattering excitedly.
“It’s almost like they’re jealous,” Ms. LaFronz laughed. “They’re always asking ‘how come we don’t get to play with a horse?’ So we’re going to try to do something on career day where I bring in the horses and all of the students are able to interact and play with them.”
“The equine therapy program has been a tremendous asset to our special education student population since its inception three years ago,” Deputy Superintendent of Human Resources and Pupil Personnel Services. “It’s an example of how Valley Central continuously seeks new, innovative strategies to meet all of our students’ needs and help students of all abilities thrive.”