Ridgefield stable offers healing through horses

RIDGEFIELD — A highly specialized form of physical therapy centering on horseback riding soon will become easier to find in the Northeast.

Ridgefield is about to become one of, if not the only official hippotherapy facility in New England or New York state.

“My interest in hippotheraphy came as a result of experiencing the dramatically positive effect it has had on my disabled granddaughter, Jordy,” said co-founder Robert Zink.

Despite severe physical disabilities, hippotherapy treatment has had a major effect in strengthening Jordy’s core muscles and improving her ability to support her upright posture and begin walking.

“Her mobility has dramatically increased,” said Katy Schermann, Zink’s longtime friend, associate and executive director of the new facility, which will hold a ribbon-cutting Sept. 24.

Hippotherapy centers on using a horse for occupational and physical therapy, rather than inanimate objects one might find in a gym, such as an exercise ball or a walker.

The method is used for speech therapy, since the horse’s movement sparks sensory engagement in patients, promoting progress and augmenting their focus.

Simultaneously, the mental and emotional benefits associated with traditional equine therapy not only prove beneficial to participating patients in general, but also bring about greater improvement in their physical work.

“This is different in so much as you have someone who understands the magic of horses, but is a medical professional in their own right,” Schermann said, adding occupational, speech, and physical therapists are among the staff.

“It actually catapults the level of remedies,” she said. “It’s just massively more transformative in terms of the results.”

The facility offers equine-assisted therapy, which focuses on mental and emotional health.

Despite their initial hopes and intentions, Schermann said they were discouraged by other equine facilities from attempting to create Ridgebury Farm & Stables as a hippotherapy center.

“It’s very challenging to have a hippotherapy farm … The infrastructure is massive because you are a medical facility now with live animals,” she said.

Their passion, however, outweighed the challenges and — having attained accreditation from the American Hippotherapy Association, and assembled an equally passionate group of professionals who understand the value of this approach — they are moving forward with a waiting list of patients already eager to work with them.

“The amazing thing about hippotherapy, which is really doing occupational therapy using the horse as your therapy modality, you’re not just getting the physical benefits, there is an emotional connection,” said Jill Salman, an occupational therapist.

“There is nothing that I can put together in a gym that equates to being on a horse,” she said, adding the distinct movement of the horse, and even its body heat, play a role in the process.

Further, she said, children especially are thrilled to be interacting with the animals, excited to be involved in a therapy that might otherwise be something they fight against.

“It’s especially good for children who are reliant on walkers or wheelchairs,” said Whitney Wildman, therapy program director, as the horse’s pelvic motion is, ironically, extremely similar to a human being, bringing opportunities for muscle memory learning.

“It’s amazing,” she said, explaining that developmental stages can, in essence, be relearned through the therapy.

“You’re giving them those experiences back and it helps build those connections within the brain, which of course can be transferred to the ground,” Wildman said.

She said the friendly connections children draw with the animals are also of untold benefit.

“It’s also a lot more fun, so a lot of children are more willing to do speech work or work at something harder if they’re having a good time,” she said.

Wildman said that the lack of knowledge about hippotherapy on the east coast amounts to an education gap, which the new farm hopes to close.

“The staff and therapists that have come together to share this journey and vision are truly remarkable,” Zink said, “and we all share one common goal — to provide world-class hippotherapy services to those in need in Connecticut and New England.”

Schermann wants people to know that — despite being a gorgeous 56-acre facility that she said resembles Ireland — it is also covered under most insurances and the team includes an insurance expert to help with questions.

For information, visit www.ridgeburyfarm.com.