JONESBORO – Five-year-old Easton Appleby is the envy of his twin sisters, Evelyn and Claire.
Since February, the Jonesboro boy has been regularly riding an Appaloosa-paint mix horse named Dusty at Whispering Pine Equine Alliance.
“He loves it. He absolutely loves it,” said his mother, Devon Appleby.
Easton’s sessions with Dusty aren’t just for fun, however. It’s physical therapy.
Appleby said when Easton started school, a teacher noticed he wasn’t as coordinated as the other kids. A medical evaluation indicated he needed to build core strength and balance.
“We use a horse instead of a bike,” said his physical therapist, Heather Anderson, owner of Coastal Physical Therapy Services in Harrington.
Physical therapy on horseback – called hippotherapy – is an evidence-based practice in which the movement of the horse is the primary tool for providing not only physical but also occupational or speech therapy, Anderson said.
“People think we just plunk a kid on a horse and go for it,” Anderson said.
A physician may prescribe hippotherapy for a patient.
“This is an actual medical treatment,” Anderson said.
Therapists “integrate hippotherapy into the patient’s plan of care, along with other therapy tools and/or strategies,” states the American Hippotherapy Association website.
“It’s been so wonderful for him in so many ways,” Appleby said. “We love it and I feel like he gets more of a workout here than he does in the [physical therapy] office.”
Offering hippotherapy to Downeast Maine was a dream shared by barn owner Ann Alley and Anderson. To accomplish this, they co-founded Whispering Pine Equine Alliance and are in the process of making it a 501(c)3 nonprofit, said Alley.
Whispering Pine is one of only two hippotherapy providers in Maine, the other one being located in Lyman in York County. Other riding stables in Maine offer therapeutic riding, which is not the same as hippotherapy, Anderson and Alley said.
Therapeutic riding is aimed at “contributing positively to the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well being of individuals with special needs,” says the website for the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
During his hippotherapy sessions, Easton uses a special saddle, which looks like a small pad and is designed to maximize body contact with the horse. Some clients begin with more traditional saddles and gradually switch over to the pads, Anderson said.
During a recent session, Alley, who raised 11-year-old Dusty herself, led the horse around an indoor riding ring at her Jonesboro riding stable, which shares the Whispering Pine name. Anderson and another volunteer walked along beside the horse, providing assistance and instruction to Easton.
Except for the entourage, it looked at first glance like an average riding session. But then Easton sat backward on the horse. After a couple laps facing the horse’s tail, he turned to sit sideways, with both feet off to the same side. He rode several laps and then turned the other way.
During the session, he was instructed to move his arms. His last exercise involved kneeling on the horse, facing her tail. Easton balanced on his knees while using his hands to move balls between baskets on either side of the horse’s flank.
When it was all over, he took a few minutes to interact with Dusty.
Alley said not all horses are suited to hippotherapy.
“Personality is key,” she said. “You need a safe, steady horse that doesn’t spook.”
“Ann can breathe and Dusty knows what she wants,” she said.
“She has trust in me. She sees me as her leader,” said Alley. “As long as I’m calm, she knows she has nothing to worry about.”