Four-year-old Owen loves to climb and dance but when he sits on gentle old Welsh pony Sherbie his little body relaxes and he dozes off.
- Animal-assisted services is a growing sector in Australia and is developing national guidelines
- For children with Down syndrome, equine therapy can improve strength and balance
- Advocates say a mental health crisis is contributing to a demand for alternative treatments
The preschooler has Down syndrome and has been having sessions with the pony as part of an equine-assisted learning program that has opened in his regional community, in the Riverland of South Australia.
Owen's mum, Jennifer McCullough, was keen for Owen to experience being around horses and knew he responded well to animal-assisted learning sessions.
He has had sessions with dogs and Ms McCullough credits them with motivating him to first walk.
"Since seeing Abby and the horses he's signed [the word for horse] for the first time," Ms McCullough said.
"We find the animals are very relaxing, very calming, it's a chance to slow down."
She said being with Sherbie had improved Owen's confidence around animals and developed his physical strength.
"In terms of therapy, for us it's about strengthening and the core skills, it takes a lot of effort for him to be able to keep himself upright," Ms McCullough said.
Love of horses spurs on teacher
Teacher Abby Threadgold recently started A Country Gem Riding Therapy at her farm in Renmark North.
It was an opportunity to combine her love of horses with her work as a teacher of children with special needs.
"I know that horses have been amazing for me and my mental health, they are just non-judgemental, kind and sweet and they get you out in the fresh air," Ms Threadgold said.
"I knew the RDA (Riverland Riding for the Disabled Association) had folded up and that there was a need."
Ms Threadgold works with students who include the riding sessions as part of their NDIS packages.
She has stations set up in her training area where riders are encouraged to engage with language and develop coordination.
While her work focuses on younger people, she believes the benefits of equine-assisted therapy are broad.
Sector establishes guidelines
The animal-assisted services sector is growing in Australia.
In 2018, Wendy Coombe founded the charity Animal Therapies Ltd and has created a national registry of more than 300 practitioners.
She said a wide range of animals were being used to provide support for physical and mental health sessions.
The sector prefers to use the term therapy for services provided by health and allied health professionals and animal-assisted learning outcomes for services provided by others.
"It is growing quite significantly, we've developed a code of conduct and ethics for practitioners to abide by and it will continue to grow in Australia," Ms Coombe said.