By Jaime Thomas
When Marie Grimmke’s son Noah was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome last February, his pediatrician recommended she seek an atypical type of therapy. The doctor said Noah’s combination of symptoms — Asperger’s, anxiety and poor coordination — could be well-treated with therapeutic riding.
While calling different stables in the area, Grimmke made contact with Burchland Country Experience in Hartford. Incidentally, the equestrian facility was just starting its Nipper Knolls therapeutic riding program in August, headed by Cathy Lamando.
The program is designed for people with cognitive, physical and social disabilities, Lamando said. Through riding and unmounted work, students learn about responsibility, showing up on time and other social skills they would need for a job. They also perform exercises, challenges and balance training without even realizing they’re doing physical therapy.
Equally important, Lamando said, is the sense of accomplishment students gain through their lessons. “This is a sport for the children who can’t participate in the school activities like soccer and basketball.”
Grimmke has seen the results in her son.
“It’s really amazing the confidence it’s given him. He feels soothed and has a great connection with the horse. It’s something he does well. He loves it. He talks about it through the week, and he reads horse books,” Grimmke said.
Noah was so scared when he initially started the program, his mom said, that he wouldn’t even touch the saddle. Now, he is so enthusiastic about the program that he eats what he calls ‘Sunny’s Breakfast,’ which consists of oatmeal and an apple. He was recently able to post while riding around the entire ring. Lamando explains posting involves coordination between the rider and horse in both horizontal and vertical movements.
Grimmke said the staff at Nipper Knolls is supportive and patient, and cheers on her son for even the smallest success.
“Cathy is just amazing. Noah really likes her. He asks a lot of questions and she just patiently answers them all,” Grimmke said.
Though she was already a physical therapist, Lamando became certified through PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) in July and started teaching in August.
Lamando said she is able to work on concentration and focus issues in children. For example, she might stand in the center and give a lesson, and students have to listen as they are riding around her on the horse. The children have to be able to stop the horse, make it go and perform certain patterns.
Lamando, who incorporates games to review skills, describes the program as focused on achieving and having a good time. “It’s fun because the child is on a horse moving around. It’s supportive and fosters teamwork; there’s a lot of laughing and smiling, and the kids are doing work without knowing.”
In order to make participants feel safer, there are always at least two volunteers surrounding them.
“The volunteers are wonderful. Every time we’re there, there’s a side walker and a lead-rope walker,” Grimmke said.
While it’s mostly children enrolled in the program at this point, Lamando hopes to expand to include adults in the future. So far, she said, there are five participants who come on a weekly basis. They have the option to come either every week or two times a month, but Lamando believes once a week is best for carry-over and consistency.
Grimmke hopes the program will continue to attract more participants. “I hope we can get some more kids involved. People don’t realize how great it is for a wide variety of symptoms. It helps a lot of needs,” she said.
For more information about Nipper Knolls therapeutic riding program, contact Cathy Lamando at 518-642-2252 or at [email protected].