o b

Less Work, More Play: It’s Time To Change the Way We View Therapy

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom and author
01/17/23  11:19 AM PST
Charlie horseback riding

Hippotherapy, aka horseback riding therapy, has been my son Charlie’s favorite pastime for the last six years. He is ten. To remember him on his first horse is to remember a different season of life. Dumpling was like a sweet old man in a pony’s body. He moved in slow, gentle stops and starts that were perfect to get Charlie adjusted to life on a horse. He was timid in the beginning, fearful of the height, the girth, the smells, the dust settling in the indoor arena as Dumpling ambled around bright orange cones. But he always loved it.

Charlie has participated in many forms of therapy over the years – aquatic, PT, OT, feeding. You name it, he’s done it with varying degrees of success. But hippotherapy – this has been where the magic happens.

Cerebral palsy is a lot of sitting. Charlie sits in his wheelchair, in his desk at school, in his supported chair at home, but sitting on a horse is different. It’s a workout and it has been the absolute best therapy to strengthen his core and work on his hand-eye coordination as he navigates the arena with the reins in hand. Charlie has graduated from Dumpling to Chip, a bigger, faster horse – middle-aged man more than grandpa – and he is stronger that he has ever been thanks to Chip.

I did not realize why this particular therapy has been the most beneficial until my daughter, Charlie’s younger sister, began horseback riding lessons. She has grown up watching Charlie ride on family visiting days at the arena and now that she is old enough, it was her dream to get on a horse as well. So, we found a stable down the road from Charlie’s and signed her up. Her horse, a blonde pony named Sammy is gentle in the same way Dumpling was. From the moment she picked up a curry comb and began to groom him, her face mirrored her brother’s – pure delight. That is the magic. For Charlie, getting to ride his horse is both therapy and also joy. He found something he delights in that also happens to be good for his body.

I think we have all discovered this in some form or fashion in a hobby we love – crossword puzzles to exercise the mind, the hike down the trail that gets your blood flowing but also reminds you how blue the sky is, the knitting in a humming coffee shop that soothes your soul and lulls your brain like a cat in the sun. We do these things because we love them and they also happen to be good for us. That’s the secret sauce, isn’t it – finding the thing you enjoy that does good things for you as well?

So many times in the special needs community, I see therapies promoted for their intellectual and physical benefits. Walk ten steps in the gait-trainer. Use this new spoon to self-feed. Switch to this adaptive device for alternative communication. But I never see the fun that could be talked about as well. Why can’t therapy be both self-improvement, but also enjoyable? Why can’t the yoga ball be traded in for a horse?

We grow the most when we invest our whole being in something. New neural pathways are formed as we lose ourselves in an pleasurable task. To view therapy in this light is to change the way we approach caring for our children with special needs. It turns work into play. That is when our children thrive the most.


child with special needs
Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom and author.

Author of the middle-grade novels:

















Recent GROW

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *