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The Gold Dust Riders: engaging bodies and minds

Gold Dust Riders 2013
Gold Dust Rider Tristan Rettig is assisted by physical therapy students as he engages in hippotherapy.

Operated through the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of North Georgia, the Gold Dust Riders—a collection of children and adults with disabilities—benefit from a unique type of physical therapy involving horses, called hippotherapy. The riding camps are orchestrated by physical therapy students led by Dr. Terrie Millard, associate professor of physical therapy. Millard talks about the Gold Dust Riders' mission and how the patients served during the camps benefit from the therapy received.


What is the mission of the Gold Dust Riders?

One part of our mission is to provide physical therapy to individuals with disabilities, children and adults, who may not otherwise have access to the service. No one is turned away for inability to pay. Another part of the mission is to teach physical therapy students how to use the movement of a horse to benefit individuals with disabilities. We also want to generate interest in the physical therapy program at UNG in students and members of the community, and to provide a venue for individuals in the community to give back to their community through volunteerism.

How do the students assist the riders?

The physical therapy students, assisted by the horses, help individuals with disabilities become stronger, improve their range of motion, improve their balance and endurance, and also improve their ability to interact with others. The physical therapy students are volunteering a large amount of time to learn about the way a horse moves and communicates. They then must learn how to apply this knowledge to assist their patients in meeting their goals which may be improved ambulation, head control, trunk control or any number of other things. The camp assists students in developing improved clinical reasoning and appropriate intervention skills under the watchful eye of physical therapists experienced in hippotherapy.

Why is hippotherapy more effective for these patients than traditional physical therapy?

Because the patients adapt to the movement of the horse, they development new movement patterns, sometimes activating muscles that have never been used appropriately. Patients get stronger, improve their ability to recognize and correct balance loss, improve endurance and have fun at the same time.  Children and adults who have difficulty interacting and/or communicating with others also sometimes find barriers lifted and engage more readily with others.

One of the benefits of using a horse to provide therapy is that the horse is continually moving and the gait and direction of movement of the horse can be adjusted to improve trunk muscle activation. The continuous need for body adjustments assists individuals in becoming more aware of where their body is in space, improving their reaction time in making adjustments. Children and adults work on exercises without realizing how hard they are working. Another wonderful advantage of hippotherapy is that it is fun. Horses are majestic animals that have a keen ability to perceive the needs of people and are wonderful therapy partners.

For the Gold Dust Riders to be successful, many volunteers are needed. The next camp will be held October 2013. If you are interested in volunteering, contact Reba Duff at Volunteer training will be held the last week of September.

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