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Horseback therapy helps Mass. autistic children

By Linda Murphy
The Herald News / April 21, 2012
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REHOBOTH, Mass.—As 9-year-old Daniel Nelson unhesitatingly leads his therapeutic horse, "Pippin," down the track at Greenlock Therapeutic Riding Center he carefully follows therapist Kathy Darowski's instructions.

The autistic youngster holds his hands out in front of him for a count of 10; puts them out to his side for a 10-count; and then raises them above his head for another 10-count.

"We set specific goals for the kids -- they're basic therapy goals that have nothing to do with the horse," said Darowski, a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant who works specifically with horses.

The equine therapy horses, on the other hand, are carefully selected for temperament and are trained to handle riders with all different types of disabilities such as cerebral palsy, down's syndrome and certain brain injuries. The equine therapy center works with about 150 patients weekly and Darowski said they're seeing more and more patients with autism. "The key to horse therapy is that they don't realize they're getting therapy," she said of the sessions that help patients build a variety of skills.

Pippin, the sturdy 12-year-old Persheron draft horse that Daniel usually rides on his weekly Saturday morning therapy sessions was selected because he fit into Darowski's therapy goals for Daniel. "The type of movement he provides helps to keep him organized," she said of the heavy horse's rhythmic gait.

The therapy also helps him follow to directions, and because he has specific issues with eating, Darowski said manipulating the horse also strengthens his shoulders, which aids with eating and other tasks using his hands.

As Darowski walks alongside the youngster on the horse, volunteer Lesley Almeida leads the horse from the front stopping intermittently along the trail.

"Where do you want to go?" Darowski asks.

"More track," replies Daniel.

"What do you tell Pip," she asks.

"Walk Pip," he replies, appearing clearly pleased at the horse following his command.

"A lot of the work with Daniel is direction following and having him be part of the conversation. All of that carries over into the rest of his life," said Darowski.

Some of his favorite parts of the half-hour therapy session are standing up in the stirrups as the horse walks and posting: standing and sitting while the horse is in motion.

His parents, Johanna and Dave Nelson, of North Dighton, have been bringing Daniel and his younger brother, Michael, 5, to the riding center for years. Daniel started the equine therapy when he was just 18 months old, about four months before he was diagnosed with autism. At 18 months, his mother said, he didn't meet all of the milestones expected of his age and he was referred to the center through an early intervention program in Taunton. "Almost immediately he was a different child on a horse. He was more vocal and he was able to get him to do things," she said.

Their 5-year-old son, Michael, who was diagnosed at 6 months old with a higher functioning level of autism, has been taking part in the equine therapy program since he was 2 years old.

Daniel, who is considered to be non-verbal, has made tremendous strides over the years, even becoming more vocal. "If you had seen him when he was little, he didn't look at you and he didn't respond to you, you'd see that now he's a totally different kid," she said.

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