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Best Lifestyle Feature-- Not Horsing Around: Therapy With Horses at The Red Barn

Stan Ingold
Alabama Public Radio
George the Horse

The holidays are a time for togetherness and family. However it is also a time of high stress for many, especially adults and children who deal with issues like anxiety and post-traumatic stress. However there is a place in Alabama that helps them cope year round. 

Tucked away just north of Birmingham is a farm where people go to get help and put their minds at ease. That place is called the Red Barn, and not all of the helpers here walk on two legs.   

Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio
Alabama Public Radio
The Red Barn

    The Red Barn uses horses for therapeutic riding sessions and for something known as hippotherapy, and no, it does not involve a hippopotamus...

“Hippo means horse. And so it’s the use of the horse in therapy.

That’s Ellen Davis. She works at Red Barn.

“Sometimes people call us hippotherapists but we’re not, we’re either occupational therapists, physical therapists or speech therapists who are using the horse.”

Davis is an occupational therapist who’s trained in hippotherapy. She says it is beneficial to a wide variety of people...

“Hippotherapy is usually looking at individuals with neuromuscular or sensory input problems. That could include autism, Spina bifida, downs syndrome, cerebral palsy, and it is very goal-oriented and part of an overall plan.”

Working with the horses also helps build a routine. Alexis Braswell is one of the horse trainers at the Red Barn. She says students take part in the care of the horses too…

“Most lessons begin with the students coming in, checking the board, seeing what horse they’re 

Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio
Alabama Public Radio
Red Barn Schedule Board

riding that day and they’ll go to the tack room and get their groom box, assist in grooming their horse and tacking their horse and then they’ll ride.”

She says the rides will consist of a few different choices…

“And that might be a trail ride that might be an obstacle course, it might be working on independent steering in the arena or learning how to trot for the first time or any number of things.”

Joy O’Neal who runs the Red Barn. She says they started out just doing therapeutic riding…

“And then one of our riding instructors was also a speech therapist and so she was a lot of time working with students who needed to improve their speech and so she went through the hippotherapy training and began being able to offer speech therapy while giving a riding lesson.”

O’Neal says the opened their doors in 2012 and began offering treatment on horseback shortly thereafter. The Red Barn is staffed not only with trainers, therapists and grounds keepers, but volunteers too.

Army veteran Patricia Douglas comes to the Red Barn, not just to volunteer, working with her four legged friend Jessie helps her out too...

“When I driving over here sometimes I’m all stressed out, but when I leave I’m always relaxed, it kinda slows me down. Workin’ with Jessie I know what she likes.”

She says the two of them hit it off pretty quick but at first it took some getting used to... 

Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio
Alabama Public Radio
Patricia Douglas and Jessie

“Some of them are so big and they seem intimidating, once you start working with them, and they calm down and you understand something about them, it helps you learn that even though they seem intimidating, they’re really not, you kinda learn, you learn about yourself and the horse at the same time.”

Remember Ellen Davis? She says that is one of the key aspects of hippotherapy...

“Horses can be intimidating because of their size... Makes us kinda step back and look at ourselves a little bit more. You might be able to pick up a dog and get it to do what you want, but you’re not gonna do that with a horse. You’re gonna have to respect their space, and come to an understanding with them that helps improve us as individuals.”

So that helps explain how hippotherapy could help someone with anxiety or something similar. But Davis goes on to explain how works for people with autism and neuromuscular disorders...

“The horses pelvis moves in the same three planes of movement that we move in. it goes front to back, side to side, and rotates, and so any rider with movement problems that creates a pattern of movement that we can learn to follow, and then develop on our own.”

These movements not only help physically, but mentally too...

“Those three movements are the basis for a lot of our stability as we move throughout our environment. So, it can help retrain our brain as far as muscular movement.”

A child doesn’t even have to have a diagnosis to benefit from working with the horses. Dana Archer brings her daughter to the Red Barn for just that sort of thing…

“She has very strong emotions, and she’s extremely shy, you know, an introvert. Most of the time she would rather stay at home then go out places, and so it’s really drawing her out, giving her something to be passionate about and have confidence about.”

Credit Stan Ingold
Horses waiting for riders at the Red Barn

Archer says she’s not sure what she would have done if she hadn’t found out therapeutic riding and hippotherapy...

“She’s tried dance, and gymnastics, and cheerleading, and it was just never anything that she really wanted to do, and to have the gift of loving horses and learning how to ride, I feel like I’m able to give her something that she will have for the rest of her life.”

Joy O’Neal says over 100 children and adults visit the Red Barn each week. She says they’re working with other groups like JAYC or “Just Ask Yourself to Care.” O’Neal wants to expand the programs at the Red Barn in the New Year, including working with police officers…

“In 2018 we’re going to work on a project that sort of expands their existing law enforcement training that they do for police officers to help them identify their own burnout.”

She says it will also help them learn how to handle people better…

“To be more informed about trauma they may encounter with the folks they may see out on the street. It’s also to start working with police officers to help them learn more about communication delays in children with disabilities, specifically autism or other psychiatric diagnoses.”  

Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio
Alabama Public Radio
Grace Butler, Program Coordinator and Joy O'Neal, Executive Director of the Red Barn

Whether it’s kids, veterans, police officers or anyone with a need, the Red Barn offers a chance for everyone to saddle up and take on the challenges they face every day.

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