Every week, Deborah Ondrasik and her daughter, Gabrielle, make a stop at Sundance Circle Hippotherapy in Sumner to meet with physical therapist John Payne.
When the Tacoma residents park on the farm’s property and get out of the car, 4-year-old Gabrielle walks really fast toward the stables — toward the horses.
It’s how Deborah knows her daughter — who suffers from a brain disorder called epileptic encephalopathy and once couldn’t walk at all — is excited.
“Other kids end up doing soccer or basketball,” Ondrasik said. “It’s really special to have found something that she really enjoys.”
What Gabrielle enjoys is hippotherapy — a type of therapy that uses horses and horseback riding for rehabilitative and therapeutic treatment as a means of improving coordination, balance and strength.
According to the American Hippotherapy Association, there’s only one facility in Washington state that provides hippotherapy treatment — until now.
Starting a hippotherapy clinic
There are two sides to John Payne: the side that dons a white lab coat and works full-time out of Meridian Physical Therapy in Puyallup, and the side that laces up his tennis shoes and works with horses near his farm in Sumner.
In both cases, the 43-year-old is working with his physical therapy patients.
“I have a wide variety of interests, so it doesn’t bother me to be dressed up fancy and do physical therapy work and then literally be in a ditch, shoveling,” Payne said.
Payne, a 14-year Sumner resident, got the idea for starting a hippotherapy program two years ago. Being surrounded by farmland gave him the ability to start what many therapists can’t.
“Most therapists don’t know about finding a barn, a horse and an arena. There’s a volunteer group that goes with it. There’s a lot of moving parts in these types of programs,” Payne said.
Payne started providing hippotherapy treatment near his farm, Sundance Circle, last year.
This year, he officially launched Sundance Circle Hippotherapy, leasing buildings down the street to shelter the horses and an arena where he takes his patients.
Currently, Payne works with 30 volunteers and five other physical therapists from two different clinics — Meridian Physical Therapy in Puyallup and Amanda Saliba Pediatric Therapy in Bonney Lake. Payne sees 11 patients — both adults and children — just by himself.
The program has five horses that have been trained for the program: Roma, Ressie, Sunny, Montana and Shiloh. Each patient is matched with a horse that suits them.
“I try to match personality along with mechanics, so that’s kind of fun,” Payne said. “It’s like having a variety of treadmills in your clinic… Horses are like humans — they have their own fingerprint on how they walk, so I’ll pick them based on that.”
With his current space, Payne has the potential to expand the program and is looking to do more for his patients by hosting a fundraiser Sept. 29 with a goal to raise $50,000.
“I want to raise enough money to offset all the horse costs,” Payne said. “So they still have to use their insurance for therapy but at least there’s no additional fee to come out.”
How hippotherapy helps
According to Payne, a horse pelvis matches a human pelvis, so riding a horse mimics a normal walking pattern. Patients get between 2,000 and 5,000 steps in one hippotherapy session.
“I’ll get developmental delays or someone who has a gait abnormality, so when they sit on the horse they have to work their pelvis the exact same way that they would normally, and it does it automatically,” Payne said. “There’s no other machine or equipment that can do that, but the horse will. So it’s not just about strength. It’s about sequence of the muscles.”
The therapy isn’t just physical. Payne’s patients have diagnoses from multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries to sensory processing orders, autism and general developmental delays. Many of them are also nonverbal.
“There’s a four-to-one ratio — you’ve got a horse leader, two side walkers and a therapist, so you have a lot of opportunities for that person to interact,” Payne said.
Letters and numbers are tacked all around the Sundance Circle Hippotherapy arena to help with activities. Patients are asked to communicate by riding to a letter and remembering sequences. There also are tactile activities: braiding or brushing a horse’s mane, picking a hoof and playing in the sand.
“The other benefit is it’s not clinic. It’s not four walls and a white coat. It doesn’t seem like therapy. It seems like a fun activity,” Payne said.
South Seattle resident Crystal Nogle makes the trip to Sundance Circle every week with her 6-year-old son Rocket, who is nonverbal and has a mutation in his mitochondria.
“It was one of those things I was really excited to try,” Nogle said.
Since starting hippotherapy, Nogle said, Rocket has increased his core strength and makes longer eye contact.
“It makes a huge, huge difference, but for Rocket it’s a slow but steady difference,” Nogle said. “It’s our favorite therapy to do by far.”
Ondrasik agrees. On Gabrielle’s first day of therapy, the goal was to have her become comfortable with wearing a riding helmet. Not only did she do that, she rode the horse for 35 minutes.
“I was shocked,” Ondrasik said.
While hippotherapy does wear Gabrielle out sometimes, Ondrasik’s noticed her overall happiness has improved.
“John and his staff are very kind and accommodating and very good with kids,” she said.
“I just like helping people,” Payne said. “When I’m working with someone, I’m not thinking about how much I’m going to bill a month. I’m thinking how I’m going to help them.”
About the event
What: Sundance Circle Hippotherapy Fall Fundraiser
When: Sept. 29, 5 to 9 p.m.
Where: Sundance Circle Hippotherapy riding center, 16520 92nd St E, Sumner
More information: sundancehippotherapy.com