By JUSTINE LOOKENOTT
DALLAS, Ga. — Melissa Rose has been successfully using hippotherapy to help children with disabilities for the past five years at McKenna Farms.
“The best part about working here is that you’re in a really natural environment for kids,” Rose said, “So you’re teaching them just as you would teach your own children. They are not in a clinical environment. This is identical to what they are used to growing up.”
Rose teams up with other therapists, staff, and volunteers to make McKenna Farms the perfect environment for children to receive the therapy they need in one location.
She works with children on their receptive and expressive abilities, this includes speech delays such as stuttering or having a breathy voice.
Rose uses hippotherapy as one of the tools for speech therapy. The children ride the horse and practice their speech to the rhythm of the horses’ walking motion.
Hippotherapy can also be used to strengthen the core muscles used to speak. In that case, the children will ride with just a pad instead of a saddle, which forces the children to use their own muscles to sit up straight, which strengthens the diaphragm.
Working with animals as well as the overall environment of the farm has a very good impact on the children.
“I have kids that come in on feeding tubes and leave eating like we eat, or come in not saying anything and they leave saying everything,” Rose said.
McKenna is a nonprofit organization that features eight therapy cottages, an indoor and outdoor arena, a sensory trail, and a wooded adventure trail. It is also home to 14 horses, two miniature horses, and a goat.
The organization is unique in that it is one of the few places in the region that has all the staff and facilities needed for several types of therapies in one location. This allows for children to receive all the proper care and treatment that they need in one place. It also relieves the stress of driving to several locations for the parents of the children.
The farm offers several types of therapy such as speech, physical, and occupational therapy for children with developmental delays such as autism, cerebral palsy, and down syndrome. These sessions help children overcome difficulties and achieve their full potential. But what makes this place special is the use of horses for hippotherapy.
Therapists use this technique not only for the medical benefits but for the positive effects working with animals can have on children.
While the farm does have a few staff members, a lot of the work is done by volunteers. Libby Medlin is the volunteer coordinator for McKenna Farms.
Medlin started out as a volunteer herself and loved the work and environment so much she soon took over the position when the opportunity came.
Medlin makes the schedule for the volunteers and assigns which horses will be used during the therapy sessions. Each horse can only be used a certain number of times a day and a certain number of hours in a row. She also leads volunteer training sessions, orientation, and horse handler training.
About 75 regular volunteers at the farm help with basic needs such as feeding the horses and cleaning stalls. They also assist with hippotherapy sessions by leading the horses and side walking, which is walking beside the horse across from the therapist so that the child is secure on the horse.
Medlin has seen many children improve and grow because of the use of animals in therapy. Another member of the farm is a small goat named Nigel. Nigel’s favorite past-time is playing with the children and feasting on the farm’s planted flowers while the volunteers’ backs are turned.
“We’ve seen kids who don’t speak a lot and then they talk and they’re motivated by the horse,” Medlin said. “Some kids have trouble saying what they want and need in that moment, and the goat, Nigel, helps them speak. They can say ‘I want to go see Nigel!’ and that’s a big moment because they can express their wants and needs.”