With his arms outstretched, 6-year-old Tyson Thompson concentrated Sunday on keeping his posture straight and his leg muscles strong as he balanced on the horse moving beneath him.
The boy looked miniature perched on the back of the 1,400-pound horse named April. Maintaining steadiness proved even more difficult without a saddle, especially for Thompson, who has cerebral palsy.
“It makes him very aware of his body positions,” said Ellie Giffin, Thompson’s mother. Riding 18-year-old April – a breed of draft horse known as Shire and related to Clydesdales – is also the only physical therapy Thompson does in which his symptoms don’t regress, Giffin said.
Known as hippotherapy – stemming from the Greek word “hippos” for horse – the treatment uses the multidimensional movements of a horse to treat patients who suffer from muscle or movement dysfunction. It’s said to improve balance, posture, mobility and function.
“They can’t re-create this in a clinic,” Giffin said.
Giffin and her family also are fortunate to be related to Mike and Teri Sardinia. The Sardinias own the Clayton, Wash., farm and the horse used in Thompson’s therapy. The boy has been working with the horses since he was 3 years old.
Mike Sardinia is a biology professor at Whitworth University. Two years ago, two of his former students did their research project for his animal physiology course on the effects of hippotherapy; Thompson served as their test subject. This year, undergraduate biology majors David Ellis and Aly Shaffer, both 22, took the research a step further to determine how long Thompson’s muscles benefited from each session.
The students measured the electromyograms in the boy’s muscles before, and then each day after each therapy session for a week. The electromyogram is a graphic representation of the electrical activity that occurs when muscles contract.
For most people, those muscles are in sync when they are contracting in the limbs. But for people with cerebral palsy, the electromyograms are out of sync for the same muscles, causing patients to be off-balance.
“The idea of being on a horse is that it moves in a very synchronized way; he has to use his muscles in sync with the horse,” Ellis said.
Ellis and Shaffer recently presented their research at the Spokane Intercollegiate Research Conference. Their research determined that Thompson had better muscle coordination and balance for at least two days following his sessions with horses.
Mike Sardinia said he hopes the research will be helpful in establishing more local hippotherapy options. When Giffin went looking for help, there were only two similar programs in the Spokane area, and each had a long waiting list.
In addition, Sardinia said there is much anecdotal evidence to support the benefits of hippotherapy, but very little solid research to prove it works.
“We want to spread this around to anybody that is doing this kind of work,” he said.
Already, the need is growing.
On Saturday, a newly formed group in Spokane called Free Rein held an event to raise money for similar therapy.
Founded last summer, Free Rein allows 22 children and adults with physical, mental and emotional disabilities to ride and connect with horses. The nonprofit wants the program to grow and eventually serve 100 riders a year.
But the therapy is costly, and often patients are living on limited incomes and have higher living expenses because of a disability.
The Sardinias said they have only worked with Thompson so far, but in the future would consider taking on more riders.
Giffin said that without the therapy, her son’s progress would have been slower. He no longer wears leg braces.
“The biggest thing is that he has developed strength in his torso,” Giffin said. “He couldn’t sit before without help.”