Program utilizes equine movement to help handicaps

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Hayden Street, 8, is helped off of a horse by Penni Bozadzis, managing director and lead therapist at Learning Together Equestrians, Saturday morning. The program utilizes hippotherapy, a form of therapy utilizing equine movement for the treatment of physical, occupational and speech-language handicaps.

Photo Credit: Zachary Strain | Daily Texan Staff

Adjacent to a paintball range and on the same lot as a brewery rests a type of therapy less destructive than blasting bullets and healthier than booze.

Nestled in the hills of West Austin, two horses, two ponies and a miniature horse graze on seven acres of pasture awaiting the volunteers who groom and saddle them. Their owner, Penni Bozadzis, is the managing director and lead therapist at Learning Together Equestrians, a program she started in 2005 under the name Thoughtful House Equestrians. Bozadzis and her herd participate in hippotherapy, a form of therapy utilizing equine movement for the treatment of physical, occupational and speech-language handicaps.

Bozadzis said she began horseback riding at age 13, and first discovered the benefits of hippotherapy through teaching her younger sister, who is autistic, how to ride the family horse. After earning a degree in speech pathology and volunteering with other equine organizations, Bozadzis said she realized the opportunity she had to combine her love of horses with her occupation.

“There was one little girl who couldn’t talk very well, and riding really helped her gain a sense of balance and helped her speak,” Bozadzis said. “Another little boy was fed up with other therapies, but when I put him on a horse he did everything I asked.”

Volunteers like Austin resident Carrie Goff agree horses can have a calming effect, and Bozadzis said these volunteers are an integral part of her program. Bozadzis said part of the reason she chose to lease the property on which Learning Together sits was because of its proximity to Austin. Bozadzis and her miniature horse, Teanie Baby, made an appearance at a volunteer fair outside of Gregory Gym Feb. 8. She said student groups from UT have come to work with Learning Together, as well as volunteers from all walks of life.

Goff, whose son attends UT, said she heard about Learning Together through networking and became a volunteer because she has always wanted a chance to work with special needs children.

The opportunities for special needs children to participate in recreational activities have not always been so prevalent, said Austin resident Susen Penver, whose daughter takes weekly riding lessons at Learning Together.

“We came because it was an opportunity for her [Penver’s daughter] to explore what all types of kids should get to explore,” Penver said. “The opportunities are limited, but that’s changing with things like this.”

Bozadzis said she has a few clients who have been with her since her program started in 2005. College of Fine Arts associate dean Andrew Dell’Antonio’s daughter is one of these riders. Dell’Antonio said his daughter is autistic and needed a lot of support when she first began riding.

“This has become a life-changing experience, ” Dell’Antonio said. “The volunteers were great, and Penni is patient through everything. Over the years it’s become easier and easier for my daughter to ride.”

Volunteers provide support on one or both sides of the horse based on the rider’s individual needs and lead the horse in order to keep the animal as calm as possible to help students focus on riding. The riding lessons, which last approximately one hour, incorporate basic riding instruction, games and trail rides. Bozadzis said the trail rides provide extra benefits for her students, however, as leaving the arena allows them to build sensory skills.

Bozadzis said she likes having the ability to provide unique experiences like the trail rides, and said the location of her program is also integral in doing so.

“I have so many kids who transportation can be stressful for and who may find sitting in a car to drive outside of Austin difficult,” Bozadzis said.

She said the Hill Country setting of her location is ideal for her horses but close enough to the big city to allow other opportunities. In addition to regular lessons, Bozadzis said several of her riders participate in horse shows with classes designed for special needs children, including one in March affiliated with Rodeo Austin.

Printed on Monday, February 13, 2012 as: Horse riding used as therapy