Horseback riding therapy has been successfully prescribed to treat children and adults with developmental challenges like autism and Asperger’s for several decades now as part of a comprehensive therapeutic package.
Scientists concluded long ago that the horse’s multidimensional rhythmic movement, which resembles the natural walking gait of a human, can achieve specific therapeutic outcomes.
It was that rationale and a very personal observation that led Harriet Phillips, a retired business woman, to wonder why there wasn’t a hippotherapy device (hippo is the Greek word for horse) available to help those on the autism spectrum.
After all, she had witnessed how horseback riding soothed and calmed the autistic grandson of a good friend. He went from agitated to happy, calm and singing the song Don’t Fence Me In during the course of one riding session.
“It seemed so intuitive, yet I couldn’t believe in this day and age of computers and high-tech materials that somebody or some company hadn’t already come up with the idea of a machine that simulates a horse’s walk,” said Phillips.
So one sunny summer day while she and her retired friend, Marilyn Brown, were sitting on the beach discussing the large number of kids who are diagnosed with autism, they resolved to change that.
The two women came out of retirement, put on their old entrepreneurial caps, and formed their own company, GAIT LLC, to develop REST™ – Relaxing Equine Simulator Therapy. (Equine comes from the Latin word for horse).
Saddle up: from riding research to product creation
The ladies’ journey with REST hasn’t been an easy ride.
First there was product research; had somebody ever actually developed a horse-like device and never brought it to market?
Then there was the search for engineers who would listen to and take seriously two women in the senior citizen category from little old South Bend, Indiana. By sheer chance, they eventually found Edgewater Development in nearby St. Joseph, Michigan, to take on the engineering and fabrication project.
Experimentation, prototypes, reverse engineering, trials, design and redesign, more brainstorming, and patent applications ensued.
For three solid years, the GAIT ladies galloped onward, undaunted in their quest to develop something that could provide some level of relief to those with autism and their caregivers.
Finally, in late 2015, they had a product they could show the world. But would the world look or even care?
Hitting the trail: launching the horse riding simulator
The first public outing for REST came in October 2015 during the Autism of Society of Indiana’s northern expo in South Bend.
Initially, there was apprehension. People were asking: What is this thing? What does it do? Is it safe?
But once people sat on it and felt its rhythmic motion replicating a horse’s gait, they began to understand how it could help either themselves, their children or those they oversee.
“I can see this being used in one of the resource classrooms, because a teacher’s working with two or three children at a time,” said Nan Tulchinsky, a retired school teacher. “And a little one that was having trouble sitting still would be calmed by the movement and would be able to focus so much better. So I can see using REST in a regular classroom any day, every day.”
Positive statements began emerging from most who tried REST. The few skeptics wanted to know why it couldn’t go faster.
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Phillips joked that REST wasn’t built to win the Kentucky Derby. In fact, even at its fastest speed, it couldn’t buck anyone.
“When I first sat down, and it began moving, I started to feel a little more relaxed and calmer,” stated Donald Miller. Both he and his son are on the spectrum. “I believe it would be good for kids, like my son who has meltdowns. It would be a good calming place for them to sit and relax and calm down so they won’t disrupt the rest of their day.”
“It’s sort of like riding a horse. And it’s so much tidier! It doesn’t need a feed bag, and there’s no clean-up of the mess, so that’s nice,” commented Sandra Mikesell who thinks REST could help the autistic boy next door who plays with her granddaughter.
REST gives its users the feeling of a horse without all the care and expense of a horse.
“Compared to the costs of buying and maintaining your own horse, even compared to the costs of therapeutic riding sessions during the course of just one year, REST will pay for itself many times over,” explains Brown. “It’s downright affordable, 24/7 horse therapy.”
On track: a riding product for ASD and ADHD
REST is being tested in special education classes and has also experienced very favorable feedback from those in the ADHD community who experience the fidgeting and anxiety of ASD but need to focus, too.
That’s because professionals believe both conditions, as well as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), can be improved by a horse’s gait providing the motion and sensory inputs that send calming signals to the human brain.
As Brown and Phillips ramp up manufacturing operations, they’re busy learning about marketing in today’s, strange-to-them, social media environment.
“Occupational therapists take care of people in these populations and prescribe treatment. And sure, we can talk about the features and benefits all day long. But what it comes down to is REST provides a ‘time out,’” according to Phillips.
“It’s for the mom or dad who just needs 30 uninterrupted minutes to put the family dinner on the table,” she continued. “Or the stressed-out special education teacher who needs one individual in the classroom to settle down so that the others can focus and learn.”
This article is promotional content which featured in Issue 46 – The Time for Acceptance.