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Klaipėda University’s Ambition: to Develop not only Dolphin-, but also Equine-assisted Therapy at the Seaside

Encouraged by the success in the development of dolphin-assisted therapy, the team of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Klaipėda University has a new ambition:  to develop a centre for equine-assisted therapy, or hippotherapy. The first steps in this direction are already being taken.

Tomorrow,  prof. dr. A. Razbadauskas, KU Rector, and Laimondas Skėrys, Director of UAB Horsemarket stud farm in Kunkiai (Klaipėda district) are to sign a collaboration agreement that will give both parties more opportunities to develop hippotherapy both at a theoretical-scientific and practical levels. To date, this field of kinesitherapy is developing thanks to several enthusiastic graduates of the Faculty of Health Sciences of KU and their supportive colleagues at the Department of Holistic Medicine and Rehabilitation. The interest of the community of people with disabilities in  this kind of activity is huge.

According to prof. Daiva Mockevičienė, Head of the Department of Holistic Medicine and Rehabilitation of KU, it is only a matter of time before this area of ​​complementary therapy is officially recognised and even funded by the state. “Global practice proves that animal-assisted therapy helps to raise children with disabilities and encourages people with disabilities to socialise in their communities _ this is the goal of such  activities: if we cannot cure the disease and eliminate the disorder itself, we must help people learn to live with it,” says prof. Mockevičienė.

On the day of our visit at the Horsemarket stud farm,  two KU graduates, professional kinesitherapists Rita Gikarienė and Giedrė Radzevičienė, as well as horse Antony were meeting a new child every half an hour. Their clients were children diagnosed with autism, Down’s syndrome, and language perception or mixed developmental disorders. A 4.5-year old boy J. (at his mother’s request, his full name shall not be published) boldly walked to the horse. He was diagnosed with childhood autism and delayed physical and language development. The child is afraid of animals – dogs and even flies, but not of the horse. His mother is glad that, after a few sessions,  his limited vocabulary already includes several words about the horse, and he also has toy horses. When sitting in the saddle, the boy feels calm, focused, and his back is straightened.

The three-year-old curly girl L. did not dare to ride a horse during the first session, and now she calmly agrees to be lifted. The mother says that, at home, she already allows a cat to approach her, she is no longer afraid of it. The kinesitherapists noted that, throughout all the session, the girl maintained a correct sitting position, and her torso muscles were strengthening..

Vytė, a 6-year-old girl from Klaipėda, who has been diagnosed with a mixed developmental disorder, is not short of emotions as soon as she sees Antony, whom she already knows well. She brought a carrot to pamper him. As a result of communication with the horse and the hippotherapy specialists Rita and Giedrė, the child who previously had a problem sitting on a horse is now sitting firmly and calmly riding around the pen.

“On starting hippotherapy, individual goals are set for each child, but in the prosess of the goal attainment, other areas are affected as well.  One child got rid of  rage attacks, another one enriched his vocabulary with new words, and the third one, as the mother told us, suddenly started drawing, although she had not even taken pencils before,” Rita Gikarienė from the Department of Holistic Medicine and Rehabilitation at KU Faculty of Health Sciences remembers their success stories. “There is another positive side: coming to the countryside and to the stud farm for hippotherapy and communicating with horses  have a huge advantage over sessions in classrooms or indoors in general. The sessions taking place in the countryside have a positive impact on the emotional state of both parents and children,” adds Giedrė Radzevičienė, a graduate of the KU Complementary Alternative Medicine Master’s study programme.

In their work with children with disabilities, the kinesitherapists are assisted by the 20-year-old Horsemarket horse Antony. “Not every animal can be used for such activities. The reaction of children is unpredictable. They scream, they can clap or even hit, thus the horse needs to be experienced and not scared by unexpected circumstances. Animals are trained to gradually get used to communicating with children, however, as proved in practice, not everyone can do it,” says Giedrė Radzevičienė. She admits to looking for another horse suitable for such activities because she sees the meaning of and a good prospect for hippotherapy.

“We have an example to follow: Klaipėda University in collaboration with the Lithuanian Sea Museum has started and is successfully developing dolphin-assisted therapy. We have ambitions here, at the seaside, to train both hippotherapy and canine therapy professionals. There is no doubt that such activities and specialists are needed, especially if someone has had the opportunity to communicate with people who see the positive effects of animals on people with disabilities, either children or adults,” says prof. dr. Artūras Razbadauskas, KU Rector.