Using horses as a treatment tool, physical therapist Renee Albanese Casady '83 is changing children's lives.
by Ellen Potter
It's not a cure-all, says Casady, but hippotherapy is a useful tool.
For most of her life physical therapist Renee Albanese Casady '83 had only a passing acquaintance with horses. Every now and again she'd go on a trail ride with one of the simple, easy-to-ride horses at the YMCA camp where her husband, Kim, was director, but in general she never gave horses much thought.
That all changed in 1997 when she met Ryan, one of her patients at the Discovery Center for Children preschool in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Four-year-old Ryan had cerebral palsy and was unable to walk without someone holding both his hands; even with assistance he struggled hard to balance his body as he took each unsteady step. It was Ryan's mother who suggested that her son might benefit from hippotherapy, a treatment that utilizes the movement of a horse as a therapeutic tool. After researching the treatment, Casady was intrigued and agreed to try it, using Foxy, an unflappable black pony from the YMCA camp stables.
Each week Ryan was put on Foxy's back and, flanked by Casady and his mother, rode the pony in different positions -- facing forward, facing backward, sometimes even lying on his back. The first thing Casady noticed was that Ryan worked for longer periods of time during these therapy sessions, simply because he was enjoying himself. Bit by bit Ryan learned to anticipate Foxy's movement and adjust his body to keep his balance. After only one month of hippotherapy, Ryan was pushing a two-wheeled walker without assistance. His balance improved considerably, and his steps grew less wobbly.
Encouraged by these results, Casady launched herself into a rigorous exploration of hippotherapy as a viable tool for her work. She attended the continuing education workshops of the American Hippotherapy Association, becoming a certified riding instructor by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association and a board-certified hippotherapy clinical specialist. Concurrently she went back to school part-time to earn her M.S. from Ohio State University. In 1998, newly armed with both the credentials and expertise, she founded Discovery Riders, a nonprofit organization devoted to hippotherapy for children with disabilities.
Hippotherapy (which literally means "treatment with the help of a horse," hippo being the Greek word for horse) uses the horse's rhythmic and repetitive movements to provide patients with sensory input. Conducted by a physical therapist, occupational therapist, physical therapy assistant, or speech-language pathologist (who uses it to help patients with breath control), hippotherapy can assist people with a broad range of physical problems, including those resulting from cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and strokes.
"The horse's multidimensional movement challenges a patient's sense of balance, postural strength, and coordination," says Casady, who is currently chair of both outreach and research committees of the American Hippotherapy Association. "Also, a rider's movement astride a horse is remarkably similar to the movement patterns of the pelvis while walking." Casady is careful to stress that hippotherapy is not a cure-all. It is just one of many tools health care providers use to help patients and works best in conjunction with other treatment methods.
Recently Casady and her family -- husband Kim and children Brian, 15, and Amy, 13 -- bought a small farm. They are building a riding arena on the property for her newest endeavor, Gaitway Therapy, which will provide hippotherapy for her patients at the Discovery Center, where she still works part-time, as well as for other children. She hopes to have the center up and running by this spring, and although she has already been given one horse especially for hippotherapy, she's always keeping her eyes open for others.
"The best horses for this work are athletic, obedient animals with well-balanced gaits. And of course, every so often you run into a really special horse," she says, her voice growing wistful. "Those are the horses that love their job, that seem to understand that a child with a disability is on their back. Maybe after reading this article, someone will call me to tell me they have my next equine partner! I have an empty stall waiting and ready."
Photos by David Lee Photography