Eight-year-old Isaiah Cantu carefully read each instruction card detailing each step he must complete aloud before a crowd of college students at The University of Texas-Pan American, then proceeded to complete each task in preparation for a horseback ride with "L.A.", a calm 14-year-old Arabian horse.
Isaiah, who was diagnosed with having high-functioning autism two years ago, began working with Kimberly Bradley and "L.A." (short for Lord Abbott) at Valley Trotters Youth Ranch in McAllen about six months ago to help develop better social skills.
The treatment Bradley uses on Isaiah and other children is called hippotherapy, a treatment strategy that uses the movement of a horse in physical, occupational and speech-language therapy sessions for people living with disabilities or other conditions. Hippotherapy has been shown to improve muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination, motor development as well as emotional well-being, according to the American Hippotherapy Association.
Denise Silcox, a lecturer in UTPA's rehabilitation program, has seen the benefits of using horses and other animals in treating people. Silcox has used dogs in working with children who have suffered abuse.
"Right off the bat they're an icebreaker," Silcox said. "They're a motivator. I don't care what therapy it is, patients would rather work for an animal than for a human. The kids, with the dogs they can tell a dog their secrets and they forget that there's an adult in the room listening."
That is why Silcox has been introducing her students to hippotherapy and other therapies involving animals. For the past few years, Silcox has taught the REHS 4350 Special Topics in Rehabilitation class, which focuses on educating students on using animals for therapy and treatment, and has invited Valley Trotters to campus to demonstrate the work they do with children and horses.
Silcox, who has also used dogs in working with at-risk youth and those ordered to undergo counseling by court order, said the dogs help patients learn empathy and responsibility while receiving unconditional positive regard from the animal.
"I guess the biggest benefit is therapeutic touch. As professionals we can't hug our client, we can't even pat them on the hand without worrying. The dog can climb on their lap, kiss them and they can roll around on the floor and have a great old time and there's no consequences," she said.
Silcox, who also is the president of WAGS (Wonderful Animals Giving Support)--a nonprofit group that has volunteers take their dogs to hospitals, nursing homes, schools and other places to help people--said she began teaching the course at UTPA because of the benefits of using animals in therapy and because there are few institutions that have such programs.
Throughout the course students learn about the different areas in which therapists can incorporate animals in their work, the standards therapists must uphold in working with animals and first aid and other care for the creatures, Silcox said.
Harlingen resident Cassandra Reyna, a senior majoring in rehabilitation services at UTPA, said she is taking Silcox's class because she wants to work with children with autism in the future and wants to use animals in her therapy. Seeing Isaiah work with "L.A." reinforced her desire to pursue that goal.
"I think it's better for the children, better for the patient, something different," she said. "It beats being at an office with a counselor day after day ... and you take them out of the routine, and they learn better, you break them out of their habits. I love the idea of using animals to rehabilitate children."
Reyna's uncle, Abdiel Reyna, also from Harlingen and a junior majoring in biology who plans to go to dental school, said he found it fascinating how working with the animal helped Isaiah stay calm and focused. He said he hopes to be able to find a method that will alleviate any fears his future patients have.
"In my career--in the dental field--I can use this to connect with my patients," he said. "A lot of patients, once coming into the dentist's office, come in with that fear of pain, have that fear of being in the dental chair."
Isaiah's mother, Mere Cantu, said she's already seen improvement in her son.
"To us, his language skills are better and his social skills are better," Cantu said.
For more information about WAGS and the course Silcox teaches at UTPA, contact Silcox at (956) 456-7378.
To learn more about hippotherapy, visit The American Hippotherapy Association's website.
For more information about Valley Trotters Youth Ranch, visit its website.