Hippotherapy – horses bring movement and smiles to children with disabilities
Angela Torsch is a petite dynamo of a woman. Words tumble from her with amazing rapidity and fierce focus as she explains the methods, benefits and joys of hippotherapy – a horseback-based physiotherapy which, Angela asserts, has a radical impact on the lives of children with special needs and their families.
At Townfoot Stables in Shilbottle near Alnwick it is immediately evident how much the club means to its members. Theresa is a tiny girl with limited speech and poor physical stability. On the horse, she smiles and laughs as Angela and her volunteers lead her round the indoor arena. Theresa decides which of the colourful pictures of animals – upcycled by Angela from discarded cupboard doors and stickers – the group should head towards. Theresa’s mother says, “It’s really strengthened her core muscles. At first she collapsed forwards on the horse but now – look at her posture!” It’s true. Theresa looks poised atop the horse – and this is just her third session. Pedro’s mother says, “He doesn’t really get animated or motivated but we turn into the drive of the stables and he lights up. When he’s on the horse he’s really switched on.” Another parent says, “She’s beginning to say words and ‘horse’ is definitely one of the favourites! We can’t believe how much more confident she is.”
Throughout the intense 30-minute sessions, Angela shifts the child’s position, moves their limbs, and encourages them to stay engaged and responsive to the horses, the visual stimuli and the jolly songs playing in the background. Angela says, “I can’t underline how much progress I’ve seen in children in weeks as opposed to the months and years I’ve spent with some of them as a community physiotherapist. Time and again I’ve seen children who can’t climb stairs get upstairs independently. I believe the combination of a context that motivates the child and the physical effect of the transference of weight from one side of the pelvis to the other through balancing and turning on the horse helps a child to walk better as they adjust naturally to taking weight on one side and then the other.”
In the late 90s in post-war Slovenia Angela saw that her neuro-rehabilitation skills could combine with those of a trained hippotherapist to transform brain-damaged young men’s lives. Back in the UK Angela worked for some ten years as a community physiotherapist and trained in hippotherapy. A year ago she set up Hippotherapy Northumberland Club. Angela admits to thinking about the club pretty much all the time.
“Sometimes I feel overwhelmed – mostly by raising the profile and fundraising. But we’re so lucky with parent volunteers, community support, sponsors and grants and, of course, Townfoot Stables who support us and keep costs as low as possible. It would be great to partner with another stable to bring the therapy closer to other children who would benefit from it.”
I ask if it takes time to establish a rapport between child and animal. Angela says, “I invited a little girl with Rhett’s Syndrome – she can’t speak, has trouble walking, no hand function and cognitively it’s difficult to know where she’s at – to the RDA (riding for disabled) Pegasus Centre in Morpeth. With no prompting, a massive carthorse, Winston, put his head right down to touch her. She was delighted! A big, big, beaming smile. They put her on the horse and it was wonderful. So, no, the horse doesn’t need time.” Angela suggests that horses pick up on a rawness and depth of emotion that goes beyond human sensory experience – like dogs noticing chemical changes in a person going diabetic or in someone about to have an epileptic fit. This is why, she believes, that within the tapestry of a child’s life and care plan – school, home, therapy, physiotherapy etc – the horse can be the stitch that pulls the whole picture together.
Angela describes a little boy who couldn’t sit up – a local blacksmith built a wheelchair ramp to get him up to the horse, “I had to do hippotherapy with him lying down. But after working with him, he was able to sit up on the horse. He was beaming. For the parents? Pure joy.”
Meanwhile, from the viewing gallery at Townfoot, proud parents take pictures. When the children trot past us on the horse I join the parents in waving. The children, delighted with their achievements, wave back.
(Names of children have been changed)
(A version of this article was first published in The Berwick Advertiser. IAll photos Jane Coltman/Berwick Advertiser)