Angelina Costa

Angelina Costa

Courtesy of STEP

Inside Track: Step in the Right Direction

The Saratoga Therapeutic Equestrian Program helps kids with disabilities.

By Terese Karmel

At some point, usually around Wednesday of each week, 5-year-old Angelina Costa begins to pose an important question to her mother: “Am I riding today?”

She’s not asking for a ride to school or to the toy store. She’s wondering how long it will be until she can climb aboard the back of the small, dappled gray horse, Arrow, and circle the 60-x-100-yard arena for an hour of hippotherapy as a participant in the Saratoga Therapeutic Equestrian Program.

The hour spent each Saturday morning is fun: Costa holds the reins; she does acrobatic stretches on the horse’s back, gives commands, gets a leg up from the staff, and dismounts like Frankie Dettori. She is working on physical and cognitive skills that will help make life even better.

For Costa, her family, and the legions of professionals and volunteers at the farm near Glenville, N.Y., a half-hour south of Saratoga Springs, the weekly sessions are therapeutic as well as enjoyable. This farm, along with dozens like it throughout the country, helps children with a wide range of physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities by teaching them to ride.

“Our therapists weigh a thousand pounds,” joked Karen Stanley-White, an experienced licensed physical therapist and director of STEP for 23 years. Stanley-White is a commanding, no-nonsense woman who reminds the children of their jobs in a firm voice and rewards them with a wide smile and a hug when they get them done.

Hippotherapy involves a child being led around the arena on a horse so that the core muscles are strengthened, improving their posture and balance. Being confident enough to control the horse and give it commands is part of the therapy. The kids’ issues range from “floppy” children, who have trouble sitting upright, to those who have little or no use of their legs (they learn to drive a horse-drawn cart) and other body parts, to others who are withdrawn or autistic and need to learn to be more engaged with their surroundings.

The term hippotherapy, the professional term for horse therapy, is derived from the Greek word hippos for horse. Hippotherapy is mentioned in ancient Greek writings, but not until the mid-20th century did it become popular as a therapeutic tool in Europe. In the 1990s it gained credibility in this country with the formation of the American Hippotherapy Association, a professional organization of physical, occupational, and speech and language therapists. 

Perhaps hippotherapy’s most notable advocate is Jim Brady, press secretary to the late President Ronald Reagan. Brady, who was paralyzed on his left side during an assassination attempt on Reagan in March 1981, struggled with standard therapeutic techniques. When he tried hippotherapy, he was pleased with the results. Each year a James Brady Professional Achievement Award is presented to a therapist by the national association.

But none of this matters to Costa, her braid bobbing up and down on her back, as she bounces around the ring surrounded by “sidewalkers,” volunteers on either side of the horse to make sure she stays upright.

Costa, a cheerful, inquisitive child, has difficulty with fine and gross motor skills and has a slight speech defect. She has been in the STEP program for two years, and her mother, Anne Costa, said they’ll stick with it until she can ride independently. Costa said Angelina’s motor control has improved, and she has also gained confidence with speech because of the demand that she talk to the horse.

Costa and the countless other children who have been through the STEP program have learned to do things that 99% of their peers take for granted. “They gain control of their core muscles so they can sit up, but they also gain self-esteem and confidence,” Stanley-White said. “Hippotherapy levels the playing field with other kids.”