When you bring kids and horses together, you get smiles. And the horses get a snack.
On Aug. 26, about a dozen children with autism were invited by a new nonprofit to try equine-assisted therapy.
Kimberly Iverson, a registered nurse at Summit Pacific Medical Center, arranged the event as part of her work to become a family nurse practitioner.
“There’s a lack of available treatment in our area for children with autism,” Iverson said. “Equine therapy can help an array of development issues. I was just focused on the autism piece of it.”
Iverson said the wait to be diagnosed with autism can be up to a year at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma or Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“Studies prove that early intervention and treatment is ideal for children with autism and improving their outcomes,” she said.
The Journal of Autism Development Disorder last year published a review of studies that examined equine therapy used to treat autism spectrum disorder showed “equine therapy has beneficial effects on behavioral skills and to some extent on social communication in ASD.”
The Washington Department of Veteran Affairs also says equine-assisted therapy can help treat traumatic brain injury.
At the event, 15 children ages 5 to 16 were showed how to care for and handle horses by the nonprofit Horse Prayer at a farm north of Hoquiam. It was held at a farm north of Hoquiam owned by Patrick Farms LLC.
This was the first organized event for Horse Prayer, which mainly focuses on one-on-one equine-assisted therapy.
“It’s very important to be able to focus on one child at a time, to let the horse focus on one child at a time,” said Wanda Wall, equine director of Horse Prayer. “The horse facilitates a lot of the child’s needs. So for them to focus on one child, we get the best outcome and reach our goals much faster. And the horse and the child get to create a very strong bond. And it’s important to the child that they’re the only one with the horse. They came here to have a special day.”
One to two kids would be paired with each of Horse Prayer’s four horses. A volunteer staff member would teach each child how to brush, clean and handle the horse. Then the child, if they wanted to, could lead the horse around the 9,800-square-foot area, winding around obstacles such as barrels.
The smiles on the children’s faces were almost immediate.
“It was really fun. My favorite part was walking the horse around,” Cadon Vogel, 9, said after his session with Ginger, a 28-year-old quarterhorse.
Chelsie Vogel, Cadon’s mother, was excited about her son’s opportunity.
“I’d heard good things about horse therapy for special needs kids. So when they told me about it, I thought it would be a good idea,” she said. “Cadon was excited. He was a little nervous. He hasn’t been around horses much, but he’s pretty open to all animals. He’s really caring when it comes to creatures.”
Molly Brewer’s son, 9-year-old Trent Meeks, was diagnosed with autism about three years ago.
“He’s getting ready to do (applied behavior analysis) therapy and speech therapy and occupational therapy,” said Brewer, of Ocean Shores. “I was kind of worried about it, but … I was shocked about how well he did.”
Horse Prayer, an all-volunteer organization, was founded about three years ago.
“The only paid staff are the horses because they get fed,” said Wall, who is certified as an equine specialist in mental health and learning through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
“We do this out of the kindness of our hearts, for the love of children, for the love of our county, for what we feel is a gap that’s in our community,” she said. “We’ve dedicated thousands of hours to get this program started.”
While the children go through a session, parents are encouraged to watch from an observation area adjacent to the arena.
“Children … get to learn about the anatomy of the horse, the feeding that’s necessary for the horse, the grooming that’s necessary, how we work in the arena,” Wall said. “It just depends on what level the child is capable of understanding and learning. One day can be very different from the next.”
Horse Prayer organizers hope to expand their services to all sorts of people seeking therapy. They see themselves working with school districts in the area and other nonprofits.
To learn more about Horse Prayer, visit TheHorsePrayer.org or call 360-580-8204.