News Flash

Kaileigh Hubbard
Hippotherapy Assistant and Coordinator

Opening Worlds of Speech with Hippotherapy

- 6/4/2012

Riding taller in the saddle Hippotherapy:
Horse-assisted therapies are being used to help people overcome physical and emotional conditions.

By Kathleen D. Bailey

Special to the Union Leader Sunday News

Six-year-old Ethan Ouellette set up a plastic barn and some trays for Barnyard Bingo. As speech/language pathologist Toby Freeman put the plastic tokens in the correct spots, she made "moo moos" and "oink oinks," and Ouelette giggled. Freeman teased him, placing pigs on cows and cows on chickens and growling, "Get off of me!" Ouellette giggled some more.

And the whole game took place on horseback.

Freeman is the owner of Horse Talk Hippotherapy and Horse Assisted Therapies. In her new facility at Halona Stables in Deerfield, she treats a variety of physical and emotional conditions with the healing power of horses.

On a warm spring Tuesday, Freeman's assistant Kate Morrill led "Miss T," a cream-colored mare, around the indoor riding arena. Freeman walked on one side, talking quietly to the boy, while volunteer Linda Abels flanked him on the other side. He was held in by a "happy belt," and rode tall in the saddle.

Ouellette has Aspberger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. As they circled the arena, Freeman kept up a soft and steady conversation. She occasionally reminded him, "Ethan, look at me."

Freeman keeps baskets of toys and learning aids at different stations around the arena. When Ouellette said, "I would like to play with that," she stopped at a plastic bin with brightly-colored plastic spinning games. She pulled the cord, and sent her green plastic disk spinning across the barn. Ouellette sent an orange one high into the air, and Freeman sent one bouncing off the metal roof. "Can you say, 'This is fun'?" she asked. When Ouellette whispered the words, Freeman beamed and said, "Awesome -- great job!"

When Ethan said, "Go fast please!" Freeman directed Morrill to bring Miss T into a trot. When Ouelette looked nervous she reassured him, "You're not gonna fall -- we have you!"

Ouellette's mother Michelle watched from the shadows. She heard of Freeman's work from her sons' early intervention occupational therapist, and decided that hanging out with the horses would benefit both Ethan and his brother Josh, 3 1/2. While Ethan has the Asberger's, Jack has speech and development issues. Both boys have benefited, she said. "It helps center them both."

Ethan has started noticing smells, a sense he hadn't used much before, and is better able to focus, while Jack articulates better, she said.

Meanwhile, Ethan, Freeman and Miss T went outside for a trail ride, with Freeman singing her special "Trail ride" song. A light breeze moved in the trees, and the horse stepped through the mud as they moved up to the corral to see Freeman's other horses. They giggled over the dirty horses and stopped to discuss a stunted tree before going back into the arena and "Backyard Bingo."

Not just horsing around

According to Freeman's Web site, www.nhhorsetalk.com, Hippotherapy is a medical treatment strategy delivered by a Speech-Language, Occupational, Physical, or Psychotherapy professional that uses the rhythm and movement of a horse to help patients with developmental disorders. Hippotherapy can be provided only by certified professionals in their particular fields: Speech-Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy or Psychotherapy.

Freeman, a speech and language pathologist, said her interest in hippotherapy began five years ago when her father was dying. She was her father's hospice worker, and when the stress got too great, she would go out and ride. "Riding horses," she said, "was restorative for me." She began to think, "If riding does this for me on an emotional level, what would it do for 'challenged' children?"

She already had a passion for working with children, and an equally strong passion for the equine world. In online research, she found that the technique she was looking for, hippotherapy, had already been practiced in Europe for about 20 years. "Once I heard about it, I began looking to see who was doing it locally," she said. The nearest practitioner was in New Jersey.

"I opened on a Sunday with one mare and one child, five years ago," she said.

Now she holds sessions three days a week, serving 40 children and adults. she works with a team of speech therapists, occupational therapists and physical therapists, along with a psychologist specializing in ADHD.

Freeman distinguishes her system, which provides comprehensive medical care, from "therapeutic riding," which teaches recreational riding to people with special needs. However, she is also certified in that technique, she said, and also offers regular riding lessons to siblings and friends. Her clients' conditions include autism, aspberger's, developmental delays, language disorders, head injuries, stroke, stuttering, motor coordination problems and metabolic disorders. She has medical goals and outcomes established for every rider.

Freeman holds a master's degree in speech/language pathology from the University of Michigan, holds certification from the American Speech and Language Association, and is licensed to practice in New Hampshire. She is a member of the American Academy of Private Practice and of the American Hippotherapy Association. She has a traditional practice in Bedford and the hippotherapy practice in Deerfield.

After Ethan Ouellette's bingo game, Morrill led the horse over to the "silver mountain," a steel wheelchair ramp that the children also use for mounting and dismounting. Freeman unbuckled Ouellette's "happy belt," and walked him down the ramp to his mother. Freeman said "Hi, lovey, how are you?" to Josh Ouellette, and helped him get up on Miss T. For Josh Ouellette, Freeman stopped at the station with a toy doctor's kit. The small boy checked her ears with a pretend flashlight, gave her a "shot," and listened to her lungs with a blue plastic stethescope. Then it was off on the trail ride, with Freeman singing softly and Ouellette riding high. As he emerged into the sunshine, his mother called from the barn doors, "Love you!" For more information visit www.nhhorsetalk.com, call 472-3144, or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Main Office:

312 Brookhaven Way
Pittsboro, NC 27312

Hippotherapy/Riding Program:

NC Therapeutic Riding Center
4705 Nicks Rd
Mebane, NC 27302

(603) 512-1263
Email: Toby@nhhorsetalk.com