Monday, March 15, 2010

Overcoming Sensory Integration Disorder with a Love of Horses

If you would have told me
two years ago
that I would be spending every Monday afternoon in a horse stable surrounded by dust and hay and well, horses, I would have told you that you were out of your mind. But, today was Monday, and that is exactly how I spent my afternoon...

"It’s Monday. You know what today is, don't you?" I ask Emma on the way to school. "Horses" she answers, with a little smile.

Emma rides horses not just for the sheer pleasure of it, but because she needs it. Riding

horses provides a very unique form of therapy for her called hippotherapy, and she has been riding for about a year now. To Emma, the idea of therapy is the farthest thing from her mind.

It is not always obvious, but Emma has a mild form of sensory integration disorder (also called sensory processing disorder) and therefore needs other outlets to receive proprioceptive input - feeling her body in space. She also has some low muscle tone in her hands and upper body. Riding horses helps her to keep her body upright, and holding the

reins is good for her hand strength. She is also able to follow directions more easily while in motion. And, it doesn't hurt that she is a fierce animal lover.

It wasn't easy to deal with this news when heard it from Emma's preschool teacher at age 3. When you hear anything about your kid that is out of the ordinary, you start to panic. My husband Dave and I had never even heard of Sensory Integration Disorder (SID), and now they were telling us that she will have to have an evaluation to see if she qualified for Early Intervention including occupational therapy and possibly physical therapy. Early Intervention? Our daughter?

Lying in bed that night, Dave and I went over in our heads how she could have gotten this in the first place? Whose fault was this? Of course I thought it was my fault. I didn't take her to enough art classes as a baby. I didn't eat healthy enough when I was pregnant. But we soon came to realize that it is just part of her and there really isn't one reason that anyone can pin-point as to why. We got every book that we could find having anything to do with sensory integration disorder. We were also told that she may grow out of it. She will always have some low muscle tone, but she will "probably" adjust to a lot of the sensory issues.

And you know what? It's true. Over the last 2 years she has grown up (or more appropriately), grown into herself. She has had OT and PT twice a week for the past year and a half, and we have added swimming and acrobatics in addition to her horseback riding. Almost every day after school, she has "something." We have to allow her to have more time to transition and/or get her energy out as often as possible. Many times after her bath, she just needs to jump on the bed for 10 minutes before she can even think about sitting down for books. I also have to remember to be very patient. It's not always easy...

I'll admit, taking Emma to her lessons is not my favorite thing to do. I don't like the smell of horses, and I am very allergic so the hay makes me sneeze and sometimes I feel as if I can't even breathe. In the winter the stable is so cold that I lose all feeling in my hands and can see my breath when I speak. The smell of horse pee is so strong that my eyes water and there have been times when I feel as if I will pass out. OK, maybe I am exaggerating a bit, but you get the point. But when Emma rides, all of this doesn't really matter.

Because when Emma rides, she is happy. She is calm and centered. She doesn’t feel fidgety or out of bounds. She seems to have this connection to the horses that is pure and real and without fear. We found this amazing organization called Gallop, NYC and they provide this type of therapy for many other NYC families like us. Emma listens and does what she is told from her instructor Ben. She makes sure that we bring carrots or apples to feed the horses and she feels right at home in that stable. She knows the names of most of the horses and has a special horse named "Emma" that she brings an extra carrot for each week.

There was a time when sitting still was out of the question for Emma. Keeping her hands out of her mouth or off of someone else was almost impossible. We dreaded going to restaurants or public places where she was supposed to be quiet and still. In school she was often frustrated with group activities, writing, legos, puzzles and the littlest hand related tasks, and she often had a frown on her face. Now, Emma CAN control her body. She CAN hold the toothbrush to brush her own teeth. She CAN write her letters and numbers and hold a pencil the proper way. She CAN avoid stepping in slushy puddles (although she just chooses not to) :).

Our Emma has a true zest for life! She sings, dances, paints, draws, jumps, smiles, laughs and has the most amazing imagination. We're still learning how to best help her, and it still takes a lot of patience and understanding, but it seems like she is pretty happy with her little self, and that makes us feel like we are doing something right. I guess putting up with a little dust, hay and horse pee once a week is worth it after all...

Dave made a video of Emma riding in her first "horse show" last spring.

* Hippotherapy is a form of physical, occupational and speech therapy in which a therapist uses the characteristic movements of a horse to provide carefully graded sensory input .
*Gallop, NYC Donations accepted via their website.


  1. There is more and more research that links many learning and developmental difficulties to poor communication and synchronisation between the two brain halves. An effective way of improving the processing functions in the brain is to listen to specially altered sound or music through headphones as pioneered by Dr. Alfred Tomatis (Tomatis method) and Dr. Guy Bérard (Auditory Integration Training - AIT).

    Now there is a new Sound Therapy Programme which has been specifically developed with the aim to improve sensory processing, interhemispheric integration and cognitive functioning and it is entirely free to download and use at home. It has helped many children and adults with a wide range of learning and developmental difficulties, ranging from dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder to sensory processing disorders and autism. It is not a cure or medical intervention, but a structured training programme that can help alleviate some of the debilitating effects that these conditions can have on speech and physical ability, daily behaviour, emotional well-being and educational or work performance.

    Check out the Free Sound Therapy Home Programme from Sensory Activation Solutions. There is no catch, it's absolutely free and most importantly often effective. Find it at:

  2. Suzi! Thank you so much for this post! We suspect that this is what we are dealing with concerning our daughter, however she is so young that doctors are afraid to make a diagnosis, so we are working with her as much as we can until she turns four. I never even considered this as a therapy option, but she LOVES horses! I will be contacting our local stable and therapy group to ask about options for her age after reading this. Endless thanks for sharing!

    Chezley Royster
    Pfafftown, NC

  3. I like riding a horse. Thanks for this, Suzi!

  4. We just had our first hippotherapy session yesterday. Thank you so much for sharing your story! Very encouraging! Your daughter is blessed to have you!