Physical Therapy on Horses Brings New Hope

hippoNew research is being developed in Erie to help kids who are dealing with spinal cord injuries. Shriner’s Hospital for Children wrapped up the first phase of research this week for a ground-breaking physical therapy program that takes kids back to nature, and onto horses.

The therapy treats kids with conditions such as spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, or even spinal trauma, and can help them develop continence.

Morgan, a four-year-old, is one of the youngest kids of the dozen who participated in the program. She was born with spina bifida and has been on bladder control medications for most of her life.

“She’s actually on half the dose of medication she used to be and she no longer has to wear a diaper or training pants. She’s actually in her big girl undies, which is a big confidence boost for her.” said Allison Spade of Girard. “To have that kind of progress, we didn’t think it would be that quick, that’s for sure,” she said.

“It’s surprising to us, just how well it did work. Many of the children here have been able to develop continence, even though they were unable to develop it with medicines, catheters, and all sorts of behavioral training,” said Dr. Justine Schober, a pediatric urologist at UPMC Hamot and Shriner’s Hospital.

Watching the kids ride horses at WLD Ranch, where the six-week data collection phase of the program was conducted, an observer would never know that many of the kids participating can’t walk.

Doctors say that already, the benefits are more than just physical, but also mental and emotional.

“For her to be included in something, and just be around kids that really understand what she’s going through as well. It’s been just wonderful. She’s so much happier, she’s so proud of herself. It’s a lot of look at me, look what I can do, so it’s been a great experience,” Spade said.

“Physical therapy, it can be rough. This therapy, the kids love. They actually look forward to coming to it.” said Angelia Gunshore of Erie, whose daughter was born with cerebral palsy.

Unofficial data shows the therapy could deliver long-term results. Jazzmin Stuckey, a teen, tried and found success with this method of therapy on her own. She now helps out with the program.

“As long as I keep riding, I’ve noticed that I can hang out with my friends, or just be a kid. It’s hard when you grow up with these problems, to try and be normal,” Stuckey said. “I understand where these kids are coming from and to be able to help them, it’s really amazing,” she said.

The next step for this program is to compile the data for publication.

“In just weeks, many of these children went from incontinent, to fully continent. And that was quite shocking to us, and extraordinary. We are hoping to publish this so more people understand this is a possibility,” Dr. Schober said.

The program was spearheaded and organized by Sue Birkmire, spina bifida coordinator at the Shriner’s Hospital for Children.

“We were looking for hope, and they gave us hope,” Gunshore said.

By Deedee Sun


  • I spoke with someone who is helping with this study and she said the kids are riding 1 hour at a time, 3 hours a week. My understanding is that it primarily helps the bladder by tightening the sphincter (like kegel exercises) which helps kids stay dry in between cathing. We are going to start riding our horse more, document, and see if there are changes.

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