As someone who's been around horses her entire life, Tara Yelliott says she knows from experience the benefits these animals provide and believes the benefits translate to almost anyone.
Nine years ago, Yelliott, a physical therapist, started a hippotherapy program at TriState Therapeutic Riding Center in McDonald, Tennessee.
"It's not even a job for me; it is truly a passion," says Yelliott, who has used hippotherapy to work with kids ranging from 2 to 16 years old, including children with congenital diagnoses and developmental delays such as heart defects, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. Many have multi-factorial diagnoses, such as autism combined with a heart condition.
Hippotherapy is a physical and occupational approach to therapy, as opposed to therapeutic riding, which involves learning how to ride and steer the horse as well as horsemanship skills such as grooming.
Yelliott doesn't teach riding skills in her hippotherapy program, in which all of her clients ride without a saddle to get the best movement translation from the horse and don't use reins to steer. It also differs from equine-assisted mental health programs, which are typically done off-horse.
"When you sit on a horse, their pelvis is perpendicular to what ours is, so the movement that they translate to our body when we're on them is the same movement that our bodies do when we are walking on level ground," Yelliott says, adding that the effects on the body are similar to those of an exercise ball combined with a treadmill. "You get that sort of reciprocal pelvic movement, you get the reciprocal arm swing and you get the variability of movement, depending upon the horse that you're on."
In addition to the physical aspect, there are also social and emotional benefits to hippotherapy.
The children Yelliott works with are constantly in and out of doctors' appointments, and doing therapy outside of the typical clinical setting helps with the children's motivation and prevents burnout, she says.
"The beauty about what I do there is that it's outside," she says of her work at TriState. "The kids don't realize how hard they're working. They're getting fresh air; they're getting to walk on grass and play in dirt and connect with an animal that truly is very intuitive," Yelliott says. "I'm a huge believer that kids grow and learn and develop — whether they have a disability or not — through play and through being outside."
The majority of Yelliott's sessions involve both on-horse and off-horse activities, such as climbing a hill, jumping off of stairs, pushing a wheelbarrow, digging in the dirt or using squirt guns.
"I always joke and say that if I could have a barn with a pool and a playground, that would be the ultimate therapy center for me, for kids," she says.
Linda Carroll's son Malachi, 10, has been in the hippotherapy program since he was 2. Malachi doesn't speak or have the fine motor skills to sign, but he has gross motor skills and can use his arm to signal the horse to go when he rides tandem with Yelliott. He can also yell to make the horse trot, Carroll says.
"That's probably the only thing in that guy's life that will motivate him to yell out like that," she says. "He absolutely loves trotting on the horse."
Yelliott sees many benefits to working with horses for typically developing children as well, as riding teaches hard work, confidence and compassion for other living creatures. Since horses are very in tune with others' emotions, it also teaches communication, says Yelliott, whose typically developing daughter rides horses.
"I've seen her go from a child who was incredibly nervous to a child who has become incredibly confident," she says.
Yelliott also feels that the people who volunteer with the program, which allows people 14 and older to work hands-on with the horses and clients, benefit from seeing the children in the program overcome obstacles.
"These are kids who are judged no matter where they go, who basically are limited in so many different activities," she says of the children in the hippotherapy program. "In this environment, they're not judged and they're not limited. If they want to try something, we do it. And it's amazing, too, for these parents to be able to sit back for that 45 minutes to an hour and watch their kids show confidence, because they're not judged, and they're able to do things, and they're not being held back, which is really cool."
Go to tristatetherapeuticriding.org for more information.