Carregal and her team of physical, occupational and speech therapists specialize in hippotherapy, which uses horseback riding to benefit a person trying to maintain balance in response to a horse’s motion. The movement (which is similar to the natural rhythm of the human gate) trains the client’s muscles, helping to improve coordination and strength.
When Gunner Pasquale was born seven years ago with a rare genetic disorder, his parents were told by doctors their son may never walk or talk.
Now 5½ years into hippotherapy, despite cognitive and physical challenges, Gunner is doing both.
“Within two weeks after starting, he was able to sit up,” said his mother, Jennifer. “It was amazing.”
Pasquale attributes Gunner’s significant progress to his participation in horseback riding as a therapeutic treatment. All Gunner knows is that he looks forward each week to interacting with the horses, especially his favorite, Ringo.
Tucked away from the traffic and noise of State Road 207, HorsePlay Therapy Center’s stables are part of the Parrish Ranch in St. Augustine. With six years in the field, founder and executive director Vicky Carregal opened the facility at this location in 2018.
Carregal and her team of physical, occupational and speech therapists specialize in hippotherapy, which uses horseback riding to benefit a person trying to maintain balance in response to a horse’s motion. The movement (which is similar to the natural rhythm of the human gate) trains the client’s muscles, helping to improve coordination and strength. It can also relax the mind enough so participants better respond to other treatments they may receive while riding, such as speech therapy.
The center sees more than 80 clients a week, all of them children from 2 to about 15.
Seven-year-old Willy may have to be hoisted up and into the saddle with the leg braces he wears for cerebral palsy, and James, who is on the autism spectrum, may be led to the mounting platform on a halter that prevents him from running away — but once on horseback, every one of the children looks the same: engaged, confident and happy.
Carregal was a physical therapist before she was a hippotherapist. When an associate of hers began telling her about the practice and the kind of results it was delivering, Carregal became interested. Not having much background in equine culture, she learned more about horses and riding, as well as how to incorporate therapy into riding sessions.
With each step a horse takes the rider is having to respond to the horse’s movement by adjusting in their seat, distributing their weight and straightening their posture — all of which improves muscle tone and control.
Just some of the conditions hippotherapy has been shown to benefit are Down syndrome, autism, cognitive challenges, ADD, genetic abnormalities and development disorders.
Most health insurance will cover the sessions, which are billed the same way as other therapy treatments, as long as clients meet qualifying criteria. As a nonprofit with operating expenses, HorsePlay Therapy Center does charge a nominal co-pay but some parents, like single mom Frida Paredes, still may have trouble fitting that into their budget.
Paredes’ 10-year-old daughter Naomi was so stricken with anxiety about speaking in public that she was nearly mute during her first few years of school. Now, thanks to the support of a monetary sponsor, Naomi has chipped away that wall through her weekly visits, opening her up verbally and socially.
“I always wanted a BFF,” Naomi said. “Now, I have one.”
There is something, Carregal says, about the way a horse and human connect that creates a natural bond.
“They (horses) will turn their head and go eye-to-eye,” she said. “And the horse is initiating that relationship, like, ‘Hey, I’ve got you, man.’”
A child with autism may have trouble communicating, but when that same child is being led around a pasture on horseback he or she is relaxed and in tune with the horse and may find it easier to express themselves, according to Carregal.
“Like the first thing they might say is, ‘Go,’ because who wants to just sit there? They’ll start with a command like that and go from there,” she said. “It is the spark they need.”
They’ll leave with a positive memory of the experience which encourages even more progress.
Carregal and her fellow therapists have been witness to many breakthrough moments that happen in their presence, and that makes it gratifying.
“It’s truly like the best job ever,” she said.
Horses are chosen for therapy work based on their personality and are always gentle and patient. Carregal can tell you about how some horses have saved kids’ lives, like the time Brave, their Palomino quarter horse, sensed his rider was having a seizure before any of the therapists did and stopped in place.
“He protected her from what could have been bad if we were still moving,” Carregal said.
At his session last week, Gunner Pasquale could be seen riding his horse backward and even standing up on his knees in the saddle.
“The fact that he has come as far as he has is just amazing,” his mother said.
If you go
What: Annual Fall Festival, a fundraiser for HorsePlay Therapy Center
When: Saturday, Nov. 2, 2-6 p.m.
Where: Southeast Veterinarian Hospital, 1885 State Road 207, St. Augustine
Cost: $10 per adult, $5 per child with activities such as pony rides, petting zoo, bounce houses, crafts and live music
This story originally published to staugustine.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.