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Harnessing the therapeutic power of horses

Therapist Kim Murphy helped Trent Schulman, 2,  of Chelmsford get on a horse at Ironstone Farm in Andover.

Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe

Therapist Kim Murphy helped Trent Schulman, 2, of Chelmsford get on a horse at Ironstone Farm in Andover.

A horse is much more than just a horse (of course). Horses have been called gateway creatures to an imaginative world, and symbols of power, loyalty, and sensitivity. The bond between this expressive beast and man has long been celebrated as a transformative relationship. Even the ancient Greeks referred to therapy aided by a horse, or hippotherapy, derived from the Greek word hippos (horse). So at Ironstone Farm, an 18-acre nonprofit equine therapy facility in Andover, there’s a lot of horse power to be harnessed for rehabilitative purposes. The divas here are Haflingers, pretty chestnut-colored ponies, a docile breed that provides comfort to children with autism, developmental delays, seizure disorders, behavioral disorders, and other disabilities. Kim Murphy, physical therapist, has seen the healing power of horses as she harnesses up ponies such as the slow and steady Kaiser, or Unico, who provides a stimulating ride for those who need an energizing catalyst. The Globe spoke with Murphy about why sitting on top of a horse can be a restorative experience.

“I first heard of hippotherapy when I was in college studying physical therapy and went to volunteer at a facility close by to see what it was all about. I found that there are many reasons horses are so therapeutic, especially for children. Animals are nonthreatening, nonjudgmental, and give unconditional love.

“The three-dimensional movement of the horse’s pelvis closely mimics what our pelvis should be doing in walking, not to mention the strength and balance gained from keeping an upright posture on a dynamic surface. These translate into improvements in functional mobility, with increases in strength, respiration, and even speech production. We may turn the child backwards or sideways to ride; they may ride on their hands and knees. They all work on fine motor, attention, visual-perceptual tasks.

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“The horse is definitely a partner in the process. Our ponies are very intelligent, gentle animals — they respond when they feel the child off-balance. I’ve even heard stories of a pony knowing when a client was about to have a seizure and stopping until it passed.

“I’ve been at Ironstone Farm almost five years; Tuesdays are my long day where I treat kids for five hours — that’s 9 miles of walking. It’s hard on the body, with a lot of supporting kids on ponies.

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“We are allowed to ride the ponies ourselves, but I’ve been busy after hours with a different animal — sled dogs. I have seven sled dogs on my farm in Windham, N.H., and have been selected to represent the first US national team for dog mushing.

“As I work with the Alaskan huskies, I see similarities between horses and dogs — both are social animals and most happy when given a job to do. But I have to say that I see a lot more animation and excitement from my sled dogs — they can barely control their excitement when the harnesses come out and they know they are getting ready to run.”

Murphy worked with Schulman at the farm.

Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe

Murphy worked with Schulman at the farm.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.
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