Typically, Kristy Weissling and students in the speech-language pathology program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln can be found working with clients throughout each day at the Barkley Speech Language and Hearing Clinic on East Campus. But, one evening a week, Weissling and two students trade in that setting for a horse barn near Firth, Nebraska.
It all began about a year ago when one of Weissling’s friends asked her to provide speech therapy for clients at the Horses for Healing: Equine Therapy and Research Center. Weissling, an associate professor of practice and the speech-language pathology coordinator for the Barkley Clinic, had previously owned horses of her own so she agreed to visit. She went by herself and gave the therapeutic riding instructors some suggestions of things to work on with their clients in terms of their speech.
Shortly after that visit, Weissling’s friend called again, this time imploring her to make regular visits to Horses for Healing in order to provide the speech therapy services. A partnership was born.
Weissling and one of her students started going to the therapy sessions on a part-time basis last summer. When the fall semester began, Weissling was joined by two students and began providing speech services at every riding session. While the client rides his or her horse, the speech therapist walks alongside, mixing the speech therapy into the riding lesson being given by a certified Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) instructor.
“We do the therapy that people need, but we do it while they’re having horseback riding lessons,” Weissling explained. “So, part of it is learning the terminology and learning the skills they need for horseback riding and being able to talk about it. We do therapy with people with all kinds of diagnoses – we have adults with traumatic brain injury, adults with stroke, kids with autism, adults with autism, kids with Down syndrome – a wide variety.”
Weissling has been careful to only take students who are truly interested and comfortable working in an environment with horses. This spring, Abby Crimmins and McKenzie Ochoa, both first-year master’s students in Nebraska’s speech-language pathology program, have been accompanying Weissling to Horses for Healing to provide speech therapy.
“I was initially interested in helping at Horses for Healing because I love being around horses and have witnessed the positive impact therapy animals can have on individuals with disabilities,” Crimmins said. “Then I observed at Horses for Healing in the fall and loved the idea of providing therapy in a functional setting.”
For Weissling and her students, the sessions at Horses for Healing can be a nice change from traditional clinical therapy.
“One of the things that we don’t have to worry as much about is keeping people motivated throughout the materials because they’re out there doing an activity, so we’re infusing it right into the activity,” Weissling said. “Sometimes the speech therapy dovetails with it really naturally and nicely, and then sometimes we have to get a little creative about how we pair what they need with what’s being done with them in terms of their horseback riding lesson.”
Ochoa said the variety of clientele, as well as other factors related to the riding lessons themselves have forced her to think creatively about her speech therapy plans for each session.
“The most challenging part of Horses for Healing is the variety of clients we see and how you have to instantly switch therapy techniques and materials when you see a new client,” Ochoa said. “For each client, I have a different mindset of how I facilitate therapy with them. It is also a challenge to provide my clients with the most efficacious treatment while they are on horseback. There are a lot of distractions going on with the horse and you aren’t able to lay out materials in front of them. This has challenged me to be creative in what I do within my sessions.”
Crimmins added that getting the speech goals to align with the riding goals can be difficult at times.
“The most challenging aspect of providing speech therapy at Horses for Healing is integrating speech goals with equine goals. It has been a long time since I’ve taken horseback riding lessons, so relearning the skills and applying them to speech and language goals has been a challenge, but I’ve become more comfortable with that from session to session.”
In addition to talking about the riding lessons themselves, Weissling and the students also work with their clients on skills such as social language, storytelling and articulation during the sessions. And their communication goes beyond simply speaking to one another.
“We have some people who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC),” Weissling said. “So, we’re carrying the device and when we have something we want them to say, then we hand them their device and they tell us what they want to do next or what just happened to them, then we carry the device some more.”
Weissling pointed out the difference in pace of work for the students at Horses for Healing compared with sessions at the Barkley Speech Language and Hearing Clinic. At the Barkley Clinic, they have 15-30 minutes to prepare, followed by the session with their client, then 15 minutes to wrap up before moving on to prepare for the next client. Whereas, at Horses for Healing, they go directly from one patient to the next. That quick pace is one of the things Ochoa has appreciated most about her time at Horses for Healing.
“I have enjoyed the fast-paced schedule at Horses for Healing because I feel like it is preparing me for what my future caseload will look like. At Horses for Healing, we see four clients back-to-back so you don’t have any time to prepare between clients.”
As challenging as it can be at times, providing services at Horses for Healing has been a great learning experience for both Ochoa and Crimmins.
“This experience has made me realize the vast array of contexts where speech-language therapy can be provided and the various clientele that can benefit from therapeutic riding during therapy,” Ochoa said.
“I’ve learned that flexibility is an important skill for a clinician,” Crimmins said. “At times, we may have to stop therapy to adjust a slipping saddle, improvise when an AAC device is not working, or scrap our therapy plan and try something new if the client and/or caregivers provide new information. Horses for Healing has taught me how to think quickly on my feet, adjust my treatment plans quickly, and communicate well with clients and caregivers.”
The lessons at Horses for Healing take place once a week, weather permitting. Weissling is hopeful that the schedules will work out so she can continue to take students to provide speech therapy at Horses for Healing on a year-round basis.
To learn more about Horses for Healing: Equine Therapy and Research Center, visit http://horsesforhealingne.org/.