May 2009

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Arvin Scott

Butterfly dreams

Cat Thompson uses horses to help special needs children improve their communication skills

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Butterfly dreams

Cat Thompson and her daughters, Mary Catherine (far left) and Amanda (far right), help four-year-old Grayson Riggott (on horse) with her speech skills during a lesson.

The wind whips up bits of straw and dirt by the stables where Tinkerbell stands waiting, her saddle and reins ready. In a few minutes, Grayson Riggott—all four years and 40 pounds of her—climbs onto the half-ton mare’s back and orders her around the ring, barking directions to the fence posts where toy animals have been positioned.

“Where do you want to go?” Cat Thompson (BSEd ’88, MEd ’90) asks Grayson.

“Umm, over there!” shouts Grayson, pointing to a toy megaphone across the fence.

“Ok, then say, ‘Let’s go over there, Tinkerbell,’” Thompson instructs.

“Let’s go over there, Tinkerbell!” Grayson tells the horse clearly.

While it looks as if they’re playing a game, the exercise is actually a form of speech therapy called hippotherapy, which builds upon a child’s self-confidence on the horse to produce more refined speech patterns. Thompson launched the hippotherapy and therapeutic riding program at her Watkinsville, Ga., farm in 2006, after spending years as a speech therapist in Athens hospitals and schools and in private practice.

“She loves it,” says Grayson’s father, John, who watches from outside the fence. “Cat’s got her saying a lot more of her sounds better than she was before and talking, trying to look people in the eye.”

Grayson, who has sensory integration dysfunction, language processing disorder and a pragmatic language disorder, began the therapy last July.

There’s no denying the impact that the horses have on the children in terms of building their self-esteem, their gross motor skills and their language capabilities, Thompson says. In fact, it was after practicing hippotherapy with one of her own children that Thompson began the practice.

Alli was an autistic patient when Thompson worked at St. Mary’s Hospital in 2001. The two-year-old girl had been abused and suffered from seizures as well as other medical issues. “She began her life with what seemed like every strike against her,” says Thompson, who immediately bonded with Alli and took her home to the farm.

On the back of a horse and within a loving environment, Alli gained the strength and balance to walk. She learned the power of communication and found a reason to laugh and smile. Her new home was a place where her body and heart could feel safe, Thompson says.

Thompson and her husband began providing foster care to children, including Alli, who they later adopted. Since then, they have adopted six children and have had one biological child.

Alli died in 2002. By then Thompson had seen her home become a place for healing and happiness. She felt the desire to share the life-changing joy that Alli experienced with other special-needs children in the community. Soon, Butterfly Dreams Farm was born.

Hippotherapy works because the horse’s gait simulates the movement of a child walking. This allows them to develop better muscle control and organization of the brain when they’re on top of the horse during a speech lesson. Horses also help align the child’s posture so they can work on basic communication skills.

“Some of the kids are just maxed out on traditional therapy,” Thompson says. “They don’t want to do it anymore. They come out here and it’s a whole new world. Suddenly speech therapy is the most fun thing they’ve ever done.”

In addition to therapy, Thompson teaches children how to care for the horses and develop a love for them as she did when she was young.

“I’ve been riding horses since I was a kid,” she says, “and it’s very therapeutic for me. A lot of these kids can’t access regular sports, they can’t go play on the little league team. So this is something they can really call their own, and it doesn’t matter if they have autism or cerebral palsy.”

GM editorial assistant Lauren Flemming is a senior from Charlotte majoring in magazine journalism.

Get More

For more on hippotherapy and therapeutic riding at Butterfly Dreams, go to http://www.butterflydreamsfarm.org.

For information about communications sciences and special education in the UGA College of Education, go to http://www.coe.uga.edu/csse.