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How hippotherapy re-activates muscle and mind


In a cozy stable house on the outskirts of Mason, Bonnie DePue stands among her four-legged accomplices. Horses loom elegantly while dogs scamper around the grounds, spruced up for the holidays with furry stockings and red bows. The whimsical touch gives the humble setting a light and hopeful tone, appropriate to a place of healing. C.H.U.M. (Children and Horses United in Movement) Therapeutic Riding embraces the physical and psychological benefits that come from the partnership of man and beast. The animal-based therapy is so popular that the member list tops 150, ranging from 3-year-olds to senior citizens. The four-letter acronym also honors Chum, DePue’s first four-legged co-worker.

The range of diseases and disabilities addressed by therapeutic riding is surprisingly broad: cerebral palsy, autism, development delay, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, arthritis, scoliosis, spinal cord injury and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, to only name a few.

Lynn Grubb drives an hour each way from her hometown of Owosso so her son, Nathan, can receive therapy for Down’s syndrome, an inherited condition in which extra genetic material causes delays in the way a child develops. Grubb first heard of C.H.U.M. at a Capital Area Down Syndrome Association meeting, where a speech by DePue gave Grubb with hope.

Down’s syndrome often causes low muscle tone and loose joints in children. Nathan DePue works every Monday to strengthen his muscle tone and balance by doing exercises while perched on a trotting horse. Nathan’s face lights up each time DePue brings him to his feet on the horse’s rippling back, and giggles when the instructor curls him over for horseback sit-ups. Her mother beams back at him from the sidelines. After trying a variety of therapies — some requiring journeys to other states — she says Nathan’s abilities have seen a big jump since his pre-school’s last assessment in the spring. His gross motor development skills are markedly better.

The Grubb family even switched to a smaller car in order to cut down on gas costs. While their insurance has been covering the $75 therapy fee since the summer, come 2006 they will have to pay out of their pockets. “It’s just a matter of educating the medical community,” DePue said. “Hipportherapy is a unique method that can’t be duplicated anywhere else. They don’t understand the impact of this tool.” When insurance companies don’t get with the program, DePue and C.H.U.M. tap into alternative methods, such as offering scholarships from the donations they receive owing to their non-profit status. “We always find a way,” DePue said. “The horse is a partner that encourages motivation — a partner you can’t find in a clinic.”

Lynn Grubb says they’ll continue with the program no matter what. “It gives him something special,” she said. “I have three older daughters who play sports and dance – but this is his. It gives him some confidence.”

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