You may be wondering what hippotherapy is. So glad you asked!
"Hippotherapy, from the word “hippos”, the Greek word for horse, was created by the Germans who use all kinds of compound words in their language. Hippotherapy is a very logical word for them to create. It means “treatment with the help of the horse.” Physical therapists there get trained and certified and can say they are “hippotherapists”, physical therapists that treat with the horse, in the same manner as they have “hippologists”, people who train horses. As Americans, we have chosen to retain the use of the word, “hippotherapy”, thinking that it would be internationally easier to communicate with other professional colleagues around the world. Presently, over 24 countries are doing some type of medical treatment with the use of the horse and most are calling it hippotherapy." (American Hippotherapy Association: http://www.americanhippotherapyassociation.org/)
To sum it up, you take your autistic child and wrestle a helmet onto her head. Then you put her onto the biggest horse you've ever seen, and allow her to ride off into the sunset without you...
I learned about hippotherapy and therapeutic horseback riding in my extensive Google-ing. When I asked Laurie's Early Intervention Service Coordinator about it, she immediately put in a request for an evaluation so that Laurie could try this out. We knew it wouldn't be a cure, and were even a little skeptical as to what it would do for her. But what I did know is that provides an enormous amount of sensory input, and a session of horseback riding would be like an additional session of Occupational Therapy.
So Laurie began hippotherapy in the summer of 2009. She was 2 1/2. I have a very healthy respect for horses (read: they scare me). But I sucked it up, and put our little baby on top of that great big horse and let her go. Here is a photo of her first session (sorry it's so tiny - I had to stay far away from her so she wouldn't see me the entire time):
Laurie wasn't crazy about it. She fussed, and it took both sidewalkers (people who walk on either side of the horse to provide stability for the rider) to keep her steady, because she was constantly trying to get down. She made it through most of a 30 minute session.
Fast forward to the present, July of 2013. Laurie LOVES it now. She still has two sidewalkers, but doesn't always need to be steadied. She even talks to her horse, Floozie, sometimes (Ready...set...GO!!). She copies the motions or the sounds of the other animals on the farm. She sings songs, she counts, she says her ABCs. She verbalizes and uses her iPad to communicate what she wants to do while riding the horse. She is just ALL that and a bag of chips up there.
Because of the kind-hearted generosity of the volunteers who give their time to walk with these amazing kids, the cost to ride is kept to a minimum. Hippotherapy and therapeutic riding are not approved evidence-based therapies for autism or other disorders; hence, insurance will not cover it. Somehow, though, Early Intervention picked up the cost for it before she turned three, and then our school district footed the bill while Laurie was in preschool.
Now that Laurie is in grade school, we are fortunate enough to have those costs further covered by an organization called Southern Tier Alternative Therapies, Inc., (STAT). (http://www.statinc.org/) This is an organization that raises funds for children to participate in therapies (primarily horseback riding at this time) that aren't covered by insurance. It is pretty amazing that such an organization exists to help pick up what insurance doesn't cover...
Going to the farm is kind of therapeutic for everyone in our family. First and foremost, it's a real boost to the ol' parental ego to see Laurie flourish while on horseback. It's also helpful to talk with other parents...to know what they are going through...to know that you are not alone. And Laurie has cheerleaders...from the volunteers who walk with her to other parents and kids at the barn. Everyone is supportive of each other...they get that everyone there is fighting similar battles.
As for Annie...well, she loves going there and hanging out. She is put to work by Linda, the farm's owner and the director of the program there. Every chore seems to have a lesson behind it. Annie helps out with the horses by feeding them, brushing them, mucking stalls, all voluntarily. Occasionally she looks for Guinea hen eggs (and sometimes gets chased away by the protective mama hen). And she always feeds the goats while she's there. Sometimes Linda has Annie move rocks and 50 pound bags of feed. And to my knowledge, Annie doesn't complain about any of it. She is a real cowgirl! So, every once in a while, she gets to ride a horse for a couple of minutes.
There is just something about the horses and the farm that brings out the best in both of my kids. So, you see, sometimes detours are a good thing!