By Srianthi Perera
Five-year-old Rita Davison is gingerly placed atop a horse in a large backyard in Gilbert.
She wears a helmet and a broad leather belt is strapped around her waist. She reaches up toward a leafy tree but is prone to falling over, so she is propped by two people on either side.
Rita has a rare gene mutation that falls under the scope of spina bifida; it impacts muscle tone and speech and her movement is restricted. She’s learning to sit up, stand and walk without assistance and generally improve the quality of her day-to-day activities.
The backyard belongs to The Therapy Farm in Gilbert, where horses, dogs and the great outdoors play a huge role in helping kids like Rita.
Established about four years ago by occupational therapists Angela Troy and Cherise Basques, The Therapy Farm serves young people, mostly children, who are disabled or have special needs.
The approach is unique. Troy specializes in Hippotherapy (“Hippo” is Greek for horse), a physical, occupational, and speech therapy treatment strategy that utilizes horse movement where the horse is the therapeutic intervention.
Canine-assisted therapy; sensory integration, which are exercises to strengthen a person’s sense of touch and balance; and arts and crafts and play-based activities are also used to improve the movement and responses of those impacted.
Troy grew up in a 1,000-acre farm in North Dakota, which meant an outdoorsy childhood with plenty of animals. She has a degree in elementary education with a concentration in special education and a master’s degree in occupational therapy from A.T. Still University in Mesa.
She believes the combination of her studies enables her to offer a holistic treatment. Which is exactly what’s occurring at the Farm.
The horse’s movement works Rita’s core and simulates walking.
“We tailor the rides to the individuals’ needs because we know what they’re working on and their abilities,” Troy said. “It’s a lot of core strengthening, different movements on the horse that will get more core strength, better stability, and once you get core, create better handwriting, things like that.”
The unconventional setting – there are no white walls, antiseptic floors, therapists in clinical attire or formidable-looking equipment – is just what attracts clients. It’s a dwelling that looks just like any other in the older subdivision in central Gilbert. The property features a spacious yard, leafy trees and a children’s play area.
“Hippo therapy is the therapy that helps when nothing else does,” said Bob Davison, Rita’s father, who has brought her for therapy twice a week for two years. “She only had so much core strength that was possible what we could do at home.”
Davison has noted a slow and steady progress in his daughter’s condition at which he’s “amazed.”
While in a special program at Towne Meadows Elementary School in Gilbert, Rita also goes for speech therapy, physical therapy and other treatments.
“What I like about this place is that it’s a non-clinical environment. It’s pretty informal and we really like that aspect to it. We have dogs at home. We love dogs. And Rita loves the horses,” Davison said.
The working dog at the center is Watson, a bright, 2 and 1/2-year-old golden retriever who has been trained to fetch items, press buttons, open drawers and perform general tasks to interact with the young patients.
A new golden doodle puppy, Leo, is in training. The Farm also rears chickens and a bunny; they are not used for therapy, but the bunny does get pets and treats.
Basques is an Arizona native who hold a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Arizona State University and a master’s in occupational therapy, also from A.T. Still. The animal lover has raised and trained dogs as service and therapy animals. She found animal-assisted therapy to be a great motivator for people of all ages and abilities.
Rita spends 30 minutes each with the horse and the dog. She throws a ball and the dog runs to fetch it, she practices buttoning and shoe tying on the dog’s jacket and even writes her name on the chalkboard attached to it.
Watson is a picture of patience.
“He’ll wait around for the ball to be thrown and he’ll sit and wait as kids put the butter on crackers for him,” Basques said.
To a student of occupational therapy, working with the animals provide an extra layer of skills.
“In the occupational therapy world, this is something that a lot of people are getting interested in,” said Taelor Millsap, a student from Boston’s MGH Institute of Health Professions, who interned at The Therapy Farm during the summer. “It’s great for me, not only to work on my clinical skills, and helping my clients and their families and supervisors, but it’s also really important to learn about the environment.
“And safety is number one here,” she added.
“It’s a very non-traditional, a very unique setting and I’m fortunate to be here,” said Brandon Ryan, a student from A.T. Still University, who also spent an internship here and appreciated the knowledge he gained in hippotherapy.
Troy and Basques handle about 35 clients at the farm and visit about 40 more at two schools in Gilbert, where they work on handwriting skills, social skills, sensory regulation and anger management. Their calendar is mostly full, but they do have a few openings during the mornings.