Equine therapy helps those with special needs

Partners: Ray asks Hal to ride “up the hill”, with a bareback pad. Great therapy for core strength, balance and sensory input.

On a sunny fall afternoon, four-year-old Ray Janicke arrives at AHC for his fourth therapy session on Hal, a handsome chestnut quarter horse. First Nancy King asks if Ray wants to walk one of her three miniature horses. He picks Penny, a shaggy pinto, and they set off down the long driveway, Ray holding the rope confidently while King walks alongside.

His parents, Ray and Lisa, watch fondly. “The first time he was hesitant, didn’t want to get on the horse,” relates Ray, Sr. “They stood him on a box on one side of the horse, and they handed a brush back and forth to him over the horse’s back. Then the staff took turns getting on the horse, and eventually he wanted to try. Now he gets on immediately. Last time he grabbed Hal and started walking him.”


On the way to the center, says Lisa, “He has a big grin on his face. At home, I notice his balance has improved.” Ray was diagnosed with autism at the age of 18 months.

You’ve heard of therapy dogs, which foster emotional healing in patients at hospitals and other medical facilities. Now we have therapy horses, whose services are a boon to people with special needs, especially children on the autism spectrum.

Sylvia Bullett, known as a musician in the Woodstock area, happens to be an accomplished equestrienne who also has experience working with children diagnosed with autism and is in the process of obtaining certification through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. She has joined the therapeutic team of Nancy King, a life-long horsewoman with a masters of science in occupational therapy, also owner of A Horse Connection (AHC), an equine therapy facility located in Catskill, on the border of Saugerties.

King and Bullett are mounting a music benefit at New World Home Cooking on December 4, in an effort to raise money for the expansion of AHC. Bullett will be performing, along with Paul McMahon, the Clear Light Ensemble (featuring John Dubberstein on sitar, Ted Orr on tabla and Samuel Claiborne on guitar and woodwinds), and other special guests.

“In most instances the kids and other clients I treat with special needs will present with some kind of muscle tone and motor issues,” notes King. “They have trouble with sitting at a school desk, at the dinner table, and it may even interfere with communication and functional expression.”

To address these issues, King uses hippotherapy, the use of horses in a specialized practice combining aspects of occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy. Horses provide a rhythmic, dynamic movement that can improve core strength, balance, coordination, and fine motor skill.

Because horses are prey animals, they are extraordinarily sensitive and observant, always on the lookout for danger. Many people with special needs also have an acute sensitivity to touch, bright light, loud sounds. The characteristics that horses and clients have in common can serve as a bridge between them, King believes.

“Sometimes kids with social and communication disorders have trouble with empathy,” she notes. “We’ll point out how a horse is looking around nervously with his ears forward and ask, ‘What do you think the horse sees?’ or ‘Is this what a scared horse looks like? What can we do to help the horse out?’ It helps them connect outside of themselves.”

Conversely, if the horse’s head is relaxed, with ears moving and eyes blinking, she helps them recognize how they may contribute to that state. “That helps them feel empowered, that they’re caring for the horse, and they see how they can provide social and emotional cues that help the horse.”

Bullett recalls a client who displayed little empathy when he started therapeutic sessions but later arrived full of questions expressing concern for the horses. “He said, ‘I don’t think they like having nails in their feet.’ We showed him how the nails don’t hurt their hooves.”


When Ray returns from walking Penny, Bullett has cinched a saddle pad onto Hal’s back, and he’s ready for a ride. Ray darts over to a box on the nearby bench.

“What are you getting, Ray?” asks King.

“Brush!” answers Ray. He picks out a brush, brings it to the horse, and rubs it against Hal’s flank. While King doesn’t want to put excessive pressure on her clients to talk, she does try to take advantage of the relationship with the horse to motivate Ray to express himself.

The other human participating in this session, in fact, is speech language pathologist Cindi Battistoli, who offers more insights into the therapeutic effect of riding. “In occupational therapy, they often have kids swinging on swings, bouncing on balls. The horse reproduces all those movements in a rhythmic way that organizes the sensory system, helping kids pay attention better.”

Bullett lines Hal up with a mounting area, and King helps Ray lean over the saddle pad, encouraging him to figure out how to swing his leg around to sit astride. Once he’s up, he takes the rope reins. King places an arm across his left thigh, Battistoli does the same on the right, and Bullett leads Hal forward. They proceed up the hill and into the woods. At a fork in the path, it’s up to Ray to choose whether to go left or right. They stop at rocks and fallen logs in the trail, asking what he sees before the horse steps over them.

“Being outside is better than being in an indoor ring,” says Battistoli. “It gets him looking at his environment.” She also points out the thin pad Ray sits on, rather than a saddle, to help the horse’s movements communicate more directly to the rider.

At a small outdoor ring, they make figure eights around rubber cones, Ray moving the rope reins left and right as the horse turns.

“I’m hearing a lot of ‘Go, go, go.’ You want to go fast?” asks King. Ray gives her an enthusiastic “yes”, and the ensemble takes off across the ring, the therapy team running along with the trotting horse, two of them securely holding the boy’s legs. Ray looks ecstatic.


“We have a vision for this place,” says Bullett, who has committed to helping King expand her operation. Their goals include holding a summer horse camp for children with special needs; offering respite for family members; family events such as campfires under the stars; expanding the barn; upgrading fences; and building an indoor ring so AHC can hold sessions onsite in the winter.

Presently King works with clients once a week at The Southlands Foundation in Rhinebeck, and has been offered the use of an indoor riding ring in Saugerties for winter sessions. But she says having all her sessions in one location is an important goal. While there are lessons to be learned by her clients in mixing with riders of all kinds, distractions can make therapeutic sessions difficult for highly sensitive children.

King works exclusively with the “natural horsemanship” model. Her mentors, Linda and Pat Parelli, world-renowned leaders in this approach, emphasize developing a positive relationship and communication between horse and human. “When you have your own place, your own stable, everything is imbued with your philosophy,” remarks King.

She has initiated a program of horse sponsorship and scholarships to support her work, which is highly labor-intensive, requiring a three-person team for each rider. Kicking off the capital campaign for upgrading the facility, the December 4 music fundraiser will include a silent auction featuring crafts, gift certificates for massage, and other items. King will show a short film about her work, and she will bring AHC’s miniature horses to the yard behind New World, for visits with guests.++


A Horse Connection’s fundraising event will be held at New World Home Cooking on Route 212 in Saugerties on Sunday, December 4, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Suggested donation for admission is $35 for adults, free for kids 12 and under.

For more information on A Horse Connection, see www.ahorseconnection.com.


Post Your Thoughts