One Family’s Journey

Hip, Hip, Hooray for


By Jill McManigal, Oregon H&V

It is not uncommon for me to see a perplexed look when I say the word “hippotherapy”.  I often end up staring at a blank face with the question, “What in the world is hippotherapy?” Last summer, we discovered hippotherapy.  With this new type of therapy, it has been nothing short of a miracle for my profoundly deaf son Caleb.  Now, at age five, we are finally seeing the progress we had only dreamed about years ago because of this amazing therapy. 

My son Caleb was born deaf, identified at birth and was aided at a very early age. When he was two years old, our concerns regarding his development in speech and language began to deepen. Caleb was not making very much progress and we had growing suspicions that he was just not hearing what he should be with his hearing aids. Though we did sign language along with oral cues, Caleb could not make any sense of our communication. I would ask him to get his shoes. He would just look at me with a blank stare. I would then sign “shoes” to him, again a blank stare. I would pick up his shoes and give him a verbal cue and visual sign. But the look on his face let us know that he did not understand what we were trying to communicate to him. It wasn’t until he was two and half years old that he was identified as profoundly deaf and a candidate for cochlear implants.  

A few weeks later, a CT scan revealed something very interesting about Caleb’s inner ear.  His Ear, Nose and Throat doctor had a difficult time reading the CT scan and making sense of what should be his cochlea, since this part of inner ear was completely malformed.  This was a very unusual malformation, unlike other malformations of the cochlea.  We had always made the connection between the ear and balance, but could Caleb’s two malformed cochleas have anything to with his balance? We also noticed that he was also extremely clumsy and would often trip and fall.  

So just before his third birthday, Caleb received a cochlear implant with a partial insertion of ten electrodes. He began attending oral school and continued with speech therapy.  To help with his newly identified balance and sensory issues, he also started occupational therapy. Yet a year a half later, with attending oral school and regular therapy sessions, Caleb was not making the progress that we had hoped for. So we thought we’d try something different.

So what is hippotherapy? Does it have anything to do with hypnosis? Or hippos? No, it does not involve either hypnosis or hippos, but horses. The American Association for Hippotherapy (AHA) describes is as, “…. a physical, occupational, and speech-language therapy treatment strategy that utilizes equine (horse) movement as part of an integrated intervention program to achieve functional outcomes… The horse provides a dynamic base of support, making it an excellent tool for increasing trunk strength and control, balance, building overall postural strength and endurance, addressing weight bearing, and. motor planning.” With a licensed occupational therapist and two volunteers, weekly sessions include playing games like ring toss, darts and speech drills while riding (either forwards or backwards) on a horse.

Since beginning hippotherapy five months ago, Caleb’s progress has been on an uphill climb. We have seen a tremendous difference in his concentration, coordination, motor planning, balance, sensory awareness and yes, improvement in his speech and language acquisition. Hippotherapy has miraculously delivered all that it intended to do and then some for my son. Though he still has a long road ahead, the progress that we once hoped for is becoming a reality thanks to hippotherapy. 

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