Speech Disabilities in Therapeutic Riding

Sometimes you will get students with speech disabilities. While the TR Instructor is not a speech therapist – your purpose is to teach riding skills – there are certain adaptations you need to make and things you can do to help communication. I wanted to share some resources I have found so far about working with such students.

Communicating with Riders with Speech Disabilities

These are tips from “How to Develop Effective Communication Strategies and Tools for each Participant” by Susan Lutz from Region 5 conference handouts, and from the PATH Intl. workshop I attended.

  • Praise attempts
  • Don’t ignore attempts to communicate.
  • Give words for their non-verbal attempts.
  • Be patient = don’t finish their sentence, give them time to process and motor plan their mouth
  • Listen with interest
  • Ask questions that only require words using the number of syllables they are capable of (for example, one word/syllable answers), encourage simple verbal responses
  • Be honest when you don’t understand – ask them to repeat, show you, spell, or say it in another way.
  • Use horse as motivation – verbal cues
  • Use horses movement to promote speech – improves breathing, circulation, use rhythm in time with noise/word production
  • Use gestures and signing only when they help, not hinder
  • Try singing! They may sing or hum along, as it is enjoyable and they don’t feel put on the spot.
  • If nonverbal, use cues such as nodding yes or no, tapping for stop and go (it helps to ask what cues they do at home or at school).
  • Check with parent or caregiver about how the rider expressed pain, frustration, discomfort, having to go to the bathroom, etc.
  • Train your volunteers in the communication methods you are using.
  • Model correct language
  • Use writing tools if appropriate
  • If you don’t understand what they’re saying, stay relaxed and try again. Try repeating back what you did get – “You said something about walking…”
  • Treat them as completely capable of understanding and communicating.

See more communication techniques at my other post: Communication Techniques for Low/Nonverbal Riders!

Learn about Speech Disabilities

As a therapeutic riding instructor, you should be well informed about your students’ disabilities, what is going on in their mind and bodies, and the horse’s interactions with them. Here are some links to check out:

Addressing Speech

Again, the TR instructor’s role is to teach riding skills, not speech. If you are teaching skills that include verbal cues, or using games that involve speaking, here are some tips for addressing such words with speech disability students.

  • remember that in the end, the best thing for your rider is being on a horse. The sensory benefits can last 2-4 days (source), so even though you’re not incorporating speech, the benefits of the horse’s movement last long enough to impact what they are doing with their Speech Therapist and parents at home.
  • do a good amount of warming up to stimulate the rider’s body before incorporating lots of words. The horse’s movement encourages deep breathing, correct posture, and trunk, neck and jaw control, all of which are needed for speech. Consider giving the rider time for their body to wake up via the horse’s movement before asking them to talk a lot, depending on how the rider responds.
  • focus on one or two sounds and stick with similar words per lesson (woah, go, pole, goal, cone; walk, ball, etc.)
  • focus on alignment! As the video Speech and Hippotherapy highlights, this is key to producing sound.
  • identify what the client can do and start from there
  • break the word down into parts (w+oah)
  • break the word/s down into syllables (walk + on)
  • getting them to mimic you – say “watch me!” or “look at my mouth” and say the word
  • through the parents contact the rider’s speech therapist and ask for home activities you can do with that specific child that would support what the speech therapist is doing. Any cues or prompts you use in lessons must be consistent with those the child’s speech therapist uses with them or it could cause problems.
  • if you are working with the rider’s speech therapist, you might incorporate the same cues he or she is using with your rider, as they direct you. Don’t try using them on your own volition. If you don’t know what touch cues are, here are some examples for learning purposes only.

Words of Caution

Remember, as a TR instructor you teach riding skills, so speech is not your focus. Do not claim to be able to do speech therapy or produce results of improved speech from your instruction. Make sure the parents know this, and make it clear you’re not a licensed speech therapist. If their goal is for you to improve their child’s speech, recommend them to a hippotherapy program instead.

Example Lesson Plan

Goals: gain basic riding skills, improve balance and core strength, increase 1 syllable word attempts

Objective: Student will demonstrate leg aids for walk on (along with verbal “walk” as previously learned) 100% of the time with 1 leader and 2 sidewalkers at ankle hold, with minimal verbal prompts.

Arena Setup: 3 ground poles, 4 weaving cones, 1 barrel with balls, 1 basketball hoop

Lesson plan:

  • Mount
  • Warm up
    • walk a lap for horse movement input
    • upper and lower body exercises to improve core strength and prepare for halt>walk transitions
    • circles left and right to improve core strength, between circles say “ahhhh” and “oooohhh” to prepare for “walk” and “woah”
  • Skill – teach “walk on” using leg cues
  • Practice with Pattern/Game
    • get ball from barrel – say “woah” to stop, “ball” to get ball, “you” to choose who gets to hold the ball, and “walk” + leg cues to walk on
    • throw ball in basket – say “woah” to stop, and “walk” + leg cues to walk on
    • in between, walk over poles and weave cones to improve core strength and offer horse movement input – try incorporating the words “pole” and “cone” by asking “what’s next?”
    • do 4x
  • Progression: prompts for walk on leg aids
    • start with max verbal prompts and toe tap physical prompt if needed
    • wean off prompts until minimal or no verbal prompts
    • teach same leg aids for “trot” cue and add trot transitions on the long wall, which also helps improve core strength
  • cool down
    • ankle rolls
    • ride with arms out (not holding on) over poles and through cones, to improve core strength
  • dismount

Do you have any thoughts or experiences to add?

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Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement!

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