It’s a hot Tuesday morning in July. The horses twitch and stomp. A barn cat snoozes in the sun. Seems like just another day at HORSEPOWER Therapeutic Learning Center in Colfax, but for four kids with intellectual learning disabilities, it’s the best day.

Each summer, UNC Greensboro graduate students from several departments, including the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the School of Health and Human Sciences, gain clinical practicum experience over two weeks while running a therapeutic riding camp under the direction of professor Perry Flynn. Flynn has been involved with HORSEPOWER since the its inception in 1994.

HORSEPOWER is a non-profit and Premier PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International Center that provides therapeutic horseback riding and equine-assisted therapy to over 300 individuals with disabilities, as well as able-bodied students, each year. The program offers 30 hours of free, individualized therapy to campers. CSD began a partnership with the university a few years ago.

The graduate students work two-to-one with the children, who range in age from three to eight years old.

 

Juliet Biemiller helps a camper with his helmet. Biemiller is one of 10 graduate students participating in HORSEPOWER this summer. She studies in the School of Education and will graduate in August with a master’s in teaching with a concentration in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL). Her professor, Dr. Jane He, suggested she check out the program, and as a result, Biemiller has discovered parallels in the teaching strategies used with children with intellectual disabilities and those she uses with English language learners.

 

Riding helps him focus, said Biemiller (right) about her camper. The horse is big and reaches all of his senses: visual, smell, touch. She said she noticed a tremendous difference in her camper’s behavior before he began riding – at first he was so high energy, she worried he wouldn’t be able to get on the horse. But once he was on, he began to calm down and control his body. “It’s amazing, and it’s been really fun to watch,” Biemiller said. “The horse is definitely the highlight of his day.”

 

Flynn (right) is that perfect combination of encouraging and empowering as he takes campers through the motions, asking them to verbally repeat: check the girth, adjust the stirrup, walk up the steps (“1,2,3!”), mount the pony, take the reigns, and then, “Walk on!”

 

Each day at camp has a theme. On Tuesday, it was farm animals. On Monday, cleaning stalls. Other days campers have learned about blacksmithing and discovered foods that both horses and humans can eat. In the morning, campers gather with the graduate students before grooming and then riding. Camp sessions are 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. every day for two weeks.

 

Flynn said evidence suggests the movement of the horse helps kids with sensory processing, the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. In the future, he hopes to use LENA software to capture data before and during rides. Campers would wear microphones and the “talk pedometer” software would record what they say. This information would be plugged into a computer program for language analysis – they would be able to see how much or how little the campers talked before and after riding.

 

“Horses just seem to calm children down,” said Lisa McDonald, associate professor in CSD. “They’re very loving – especially in the process of grooming.” Parents report their children sleep better, talk more and are more interactive at home. One parent told McDonald recently, “I don’t know what you are doing, but it’s magical.”

 

 

Story by Elizabeth L. Harrison, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications