As the rain fell on the roof of a Carmel horse arena, smiling and curious 7-year-old Jack Zawacki straddled Lacey while adorning his mane with barrettes. The rain made Jack nervous, which made Lacey anxious. Take deep breaths, said Jack’s occupational therapist, Katy Eberhart, and both Jack and the horse have calmed down, ready to get back to work.
After 4.5 years of occupational therapy and physiotherapy on and off horses at Children’s TherAplay, Jack graduated in April with gifts, games, laughter and bittersweet tears.
“We’re an outpatient pediatric facility,” said Emily Sigler, communications manager for TherAplay for Children, “and we happen to have horses here as part of our toolbox tools.”
The use of horses for speech therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy is known as hippotherapy. It allows therapists to work with young children in a non-traditional setting that is safe, welcoming and fun. Horse movement helps the rider develop strength and improve balance. It also solicits the sensory and cognitive systems.
“You come here to play with us,” Jack’s physiotherapist Lauren Grainda said. “We’re going to bring therapy to that, but we want the kid to think we’re just playing. That’s our goal.
Children’s TherAplay began when an occupational therapist asked Craig Dobbs, owner of Lucky Farms on Towne Road in Carmel, if he could perform hippotherapy with the horses in his stable. He was so amazed by the transformation he saw in the children that he worked to develop the program. Children’s TherAplay started as a nonprofit in 2001 with an occupational therapist and two horses in a barn. Today there are 14 full-time and part-time therapists and 15 horses, as well as spaces dedicated to therapy.
Jack started coming to TherAplay more than four years ago as a toddler with poor muscle tone, said his mother, Ellen Zawacki. The hippotherapy helped his gross and fine motor skills – and his confidence.
“Amazing” is how his mother describes Jack’s transformation.
When he started therapy, he couldn’t climb stairs. How he climbs rock faces, rides a bike without training wheels and runs. And he knows that even if things are difficult, he can overcome them.
The therapists and the Zawacki family grew closer. The therapists not only work with Jack, but also help his parents work with him. Zawacki is especially grateful that therapists know what makes Jack happy and incorporate that into his sessions. During Jack’s last therapy session, the therapists used Jack’s love of Disney movies to make the day even more fun. Each station in an obstacle course has become a Disney story. Jack crossed a bridge from “Frozen,” climbed Rapunzel’s Tower, and pretended to swim with Ariel from “The Little Mermaid.” As he rode his horse, he searched the barn for Disney characters.
On Jack’s last day at Children’s TherAplay, tears came with hugs at the end. Zawacki didn’t know if Jack fully understood that they weren’t coming the following week. Her tears came thinking not only of how far her son had come and the uncertainty they faced when he started. But thanks to his hard work – and the help of therapists, volunteers, handlers, staff and horses – he succeeded. He is now on par with his peers and ready for his next challenge.