Every Wednesday, Kylie Gordon visits a four-acre horse farm in Gilbert, Arizona, called Barn Yard Equine where a horse named Wrangler waits for her. Like many 16-year-olds, Kylie loves school, her friends — and horseback riding.
“She’s got a wicked sense of humor,” said her mom, Kelly Gordon. “And she loves animals in general, so this is a great fit for her. She doesn’t even really know that she’s getting therapy.”
That therapy — known as hippotherapy — is the use of horseback riding in conjunction with traditional treatments to help improve coordination, balance, and strength for patients with both physical and mental disabilities.
Kylie has mitochondrial disease, which limits her body’s ability to properly process energy and requires her to use a power wheelchair and a feeding tube. In addition to affecting many of her organ systems, the disease leaves her unable to walk or stand.
“Kylie doesn’t walk at all, so getting on a horse, mimicking a walking motion really helps her hips, her core strength,” Gordon said.
The average horse walks about 100 steps per minute, according to data from the American Hippotherapy Association, and that motion can provide physical and neurological benefits for the rider/patient.
“The horse’s gait is three dimensional and it activates the vestibular system of a child, the sensory system, the neurological system,” explained Beth Ann Kaib, director of therapeutic programs at Barn Yard Equine. “It just gets to the child on a deeper level than any other form of traditional therapy or intervention.”
Kaib co-founded Barn Yard Equine in 2017 with her longtime friend and fellow horse lover Virginia McCarthy. Before launching Barn Yard, Kaib worked in the state foster care system and ended up studying occupational therapy and hippotherapy after seeing how it helped her physically disabled daughter.
Likewise, McCarthy has spent more than a decade as a social worker, and became interested in the therapeutic benefits of horses while teaching riding lessons.
“Some of these kids spend so much time in the hospital due to their illnesses, and we give them the opportunity to be outside with a horse,” McCarthy said. “All kids need to be outside sometimes, disability or not.”
Kylie began hippotherapy when she was about three years old, and continued with it off and on until having double hip surgery in 2016, Gordon said. In September 2019, Kylie got back on the proverbial horse, and Wrangler became the first horse she has ridden since the surgery. “I’ll never forget the first time she got on the horse after her hip surgery,” Gordon said. “She rode around and they had the pillows under her legs and she was just stiff. By the time she was done with her session, her legs were just dangling, which we hadn’t seen in years. Just relaxed hips and a relaxed spine, and she was just completely at peace.” It was crazy.
Today, Kylie works with Wrangler and a licensed occupational therapist every week. She is one of four Barn Yard clients who have mitochondrial disease, according to McCarthy. Other clients include children with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and cognitive delay.
“We’ve seen a huge difference in her core strength, being able to do sit ups in bed now and really sitting up straight on her own,” Gordon said. “She has scoliosis, so sitting up straight for her is difficult.”
But Gordon said there’s more than just physical benefits to keep bringing patients like Kylie back for hippotherapy.
“Our kids are traumatized by having to go to the doctor’s all the time. So for them to go to a therapy that turns out to be fun? It normalizes it,” Gordon said. “They’re not focused on the stretching and the things that they’re doing for medical reasons. They’re focused on this animal that brings joy and happiness.”