HIPPOTHERAPY – BACK TO NATURE
Emmy Chrapla, an experienced hippotherapist, has written about the role of the horse in the rehabilitation of sensory integration dysfunction. Her article was published in the periodical "Health in Cracow".
For many thousands of years, horse and man have been inseparably connected.
At one time, this connection was necessary for man's survival and development and used to drive the complicated "machine of civilisation". Nowadays though, the horse is not an "indispensable tool" in man's everyday life; however it still serves man faithfully, keeping pace with ever-changing conditions and facing new demands.
The development of civilisation has changed the world around us a great deal but, actually, our natural instincts and needs remain unaffected. What have substantially changed are the conditions in which we grow up and develop. Technological progress has not only flooded us with a wave of facilities and material goods, but it has also brought many limitations.
By comparison – in previous centuries, children used to be born at home, from the beginning enfolded in their mother's warmth, fed and comforted by her. Children used to grow up close to nature; the development of their senses took place in a more organic and healthy way; their need for movement was satisfied by playing with other children, running barefoot, climbing trees; they would absorb the odours of the stable, fields, meadows and forest. Multigenerational families taught the young about prioritising their values, encouraged empathy, simultaneously giving the child a strong social position and a sense of security.
Nowadays, from the very moment of birth, children are surrounded by the "achievements" of technology. They are born in hospitals, immediately diapered and washed, rarely breast-fed, carried or comforted in rocking arms. Their sensory experiences are impoverished. Being brought up in cramped flats they touch smooth, sterile toys and have little contact with nature. On the other hand they are passive witnesses to an enormous amount of events: information and images which they don't understand. In certain cases the need for movement is not sufficiently met: children are driven in cars to and from home, nursery, kindergarten or school; they are often reprimanded for simply being lively. A minimalist model of the family (mother – father – child) does not provide very much social experience, especially when overworked parents lack time.
As a result, mainly the "distant" senses in small children (sight and hearing) are stimulated while "close" senses: touch, smell, body-awareness, sense of movement and balance are engaged less. And, after all, the developmental needs of children have not changed for centuries.
Unfortunately, we didn't have to wait long to pay for these negative changes that have taken place in our environment; even infants and children suffer from neurosis, and hyperactivity is becoming nearly a social disease.
Motor and emotional restlessness can result from a lack of opportunity to vent one's energy. More and more often children are ordered around and forbidden from doing things as the number of threats that arise from the progress of civilization increases. The child's development is constantly controlled and compared with rigid norms. He is forced to face challenges one after another. He defends himself and responds to pressure with frustration and aggression; he often reacts by blocking any activity, or sometimes the opposite – with purposeless overactivity.
Let's consider how this situation can influence the overall development of a child, his capability to learn, his functioning in and perception of the world surrounding him.
We know that the sensory systems that mature first are:
- the proprioceptive system (so called "deep sensibility", enabling one to be conscious of one's own body and the relative position of parts of the body)
- the vestibular system (which contributes to our motor coordination, sense of gravity, spatial orientation and balance)
- the sense of touch.
These systems begin to function at a very early stage of life, even during foetal life. Their functioning is closely linked, and in the course of development the systems continue to make other connections in the brain.
This complicated neurological mechanism, which processes and organises sensations from one's body and environment to be used for purposeful action, is called sensory integration (SI).
Good integration of sensory activities influences:
- quality of movement (perception, praxis, coordination)
- creation of a mental representation of one's own body
- spatial orientation
- general development
- one's perception of the world
- the harmonious functioning of the central nervous system.
Sensory and motor development is a major element in the development of higher mental processes, such as active speech and reasoning, memory and attention, visual and auditory perception, the ability to read and count, laterality, control over one's behaviour and emotions. As a result, problems with processing and integrating sensory information have a significant influence on the child's behaviour and learning process.
The interaction of the child with his environment shapes the development of his brain.
Therefore, dysfunction of sensory integration has an enormous impact on one's psychomotor development. Such dysfunction accompanies many diseases, including cerebral palsy, mental disability and autism.
Visible symptoms of improper sensory integration are primarily:
- difficulty keeping balance
- motor and visual-motor coordination disorder
- praxis (motor planning) disorder
- reduced muscle tone
- lack of sense of the body's midline and problems with crossing it
- lateral dominance disorder
- tactile perception disorder
- hyperactivity or hypoactivity
- emotional overreaction disorder
- speech disorder
- low self-esteem.
Hippotherapy, with its multi-disciplinary character consisting in providing simultaneous motor, sensory, mental and social stimulation, can be an extremely helpful method when it comes to the rehabilitation of dysfunctions related to sensory integration disorder.
Communing with a horse, and horse riding in particular, provides a wealth of various stimuli. During properly-conducted therapy the most important virtues of the horse – its geometry, gait, dynamics, body temperature and positive influence on the human psyche – can significantly contribute to the improvement of the patient's condition.
How can horses help, then?
A horse can provide many motor sensations:
- the sensing of states of movement and stillness
- diversity of rhythm and speed
- "experiencing" one's own body in space: understanding and sensing concepts such as: high and low, front and back, vertical and horizontal.
A walking horse, with its rhythmic rocking, makes the rider sort of constantly lose and immediately regain his balance. A continuous inflow of opposing impulses from muscles, tendons and joints throughout the body stimulates deep sensibility (the proprioceptive system) as well as the vestibular system, developing a sense of balance, coordination and spatial orientation.
The notion of the physical separateness of the horse helps us to understand the design and separateness of our own bodies.
A horse provides a wealth of sensory experiences:
- touch – mounting a horse, the rider touches its back and flanks, the large body surface; he feels the warmth of the horse's body, the rhythmic work of its muscles, the touch of its hair, tickling of its mane – a horse stimulates the sense of touch with an enormous amount of impulses
- hearing – the sound of the horse's hooves, friendly snorting, sometimes neighing, crunching a carrot given by a child – all these sounds provide new, unknown impressions, usually unavailable
- smell – the smell of the stable, mixed with the scent of hay, the strong smell of the horse's hair; the barn, with the pleasant smell of oats and bran – these perceptions carry us to a faraway, natural world we had once been a part of.
A horse helps to develop a sense of responsibility.
A child learns to observe generally-binding rules on how to maintain safety both while handling a horse and while visiting the stables. He observes and respects the separateness of the behaviour of the horse, is mindful of the horse's needs, about cleaning it and bringing a carrot, apple or piece of bread to thank it for the ride. (A child will always bring treats for his horse friend.)
Working with a horse nurtures a sense of accomplishment and decision-making – so important to disabled children, who, for many reasons, are often deprived of the opportunity to make decisions the rest of us take for granted. The child sets the horse in motion with a short "wio" ("gee up!"), stops it or leads it in a direction chosen by himself using the reins. He has a chance to convince himself that his activity is effective.
A horse helps to develop self-confidence and enhances self-esteem.
A horse is a big friendly creature (very important to a child) and it accepts the child unconditionally, neither judging nor expressing opinion, passively allowing the child to sit on its warm back. This is an incredibly important experience in building the child's self-confidence. Also, the respect that adults show towards a horse, respect for its size and strength, makes a small child sitting on the horse's back feel truly important and exceptional.
A horse creates favourable conditions in which to relax.
The rocking motion of the horse, his softness and warmth, are very pleasant sensations for a child, and gently submitting to the horse's movements helps with relaxation. Contact with a big, impressive and friendly animal has a positive impact on the child's emotional balance, calms his neurotic reactions, strengthens his positive self-image.
Hippotheraphy as a natural form of rehabilitation, conducted in a natural environment and in contact with a living creature, enables children to explore the lost world of nature, to take it in with all their senses, providing the chance to experience something wonderful and authentic, as well as making possible the repair of disturbed natural development.
Our instincts, emotions, movements and thoughts require a continuous inflow of impulses. The integration of stimuli has an influence on our behaviour, on how we perceive the world, it defines reality.
It only remains for us to hope that this wonderful noble animal, the horse, keeps up with man's "rush" as long as possible!