When Kelly Delaforce sees her 11-year-old son Riley walking with a horse, calmly interacting, she knows her battle to retain equine therapy on his NDIS plan has been worth the 12-month appeal.
- Ms Delaforce went to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, and won, after her son lost access to NDIS funding that paid for his sessions
- The NDIS said the decision to terminate funding was due to a lack of evidence and documentation
- Equine therapy can provide support for people living with a range of behavioural traits or mental health concerns
Riley, who has been diagnosed with level 2 autism, lives with his mother on the NSW Mid North Coast.
They have discovered equine therapy and the benefits it brings for helping Riley manage his impulses and emotions.
"He can be really hyperactive and bouncing off the walls at home and then go out there and he's just so calm and relaxed," Ms Delaforce said.
"It's just amazing to see the difference."
But after three years of attending equine therapy through his NDIS plan, Riley lost access to the community participation funding that paid for his sessions.
The NDIS said in a statement that the decision was made as, at that time, available evidence and documentation did not demonstrate how the equine therapy was different from mainstream horse riding lessons.
Ms Delaforce then began a months-long process to have the decision reviewed.
The first internal review process was rejected, so Mr Delaforce took the case to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).
With help from a disability advocate, they won.
"It was well over 12 months of a fight to achieve it," Ms Delaforce said.
"It's a lot of hard work. When you've got a child who has special needs, it is a lot of hard work."
Appeal cases before the tribunal for NDIS plans have almost tripled since the previous year and they are taking longer to resolve due to the increased caseload, according to the last annual report.
The National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) said it acknowledged the right of any participant, or their family, to seek a review, or to appeal any decision made about their NDIS funding.
The agency said it was committed to working with participants and delivering faster and fairer dispute resolution processes.
What is equine therapy?
Equine therapy is used in hospitals, prisons, and aged care facilities, in Australia and around the world,
Rod and Deb O'Malley run horse therapy programs. Mr O'Malley says it can be a support for a variety of mental health concerns.
"Someone with anxiety can simply just stand here and brush a pony and naturally become more relaxed," he said.
The therapy can be especially beneficial to autistic people, according to a research paper by La Trobe University funded by Riding of the Disabled.
Mr O'Malley says the therapy that Riley does is effective in developing participants' emotional regulation skills.
"If that person is feeling down in the dumps, the horses will usually cuddle up to them and make them feel better," he said.
"If they're cranky, the horses won't come near them, and they have to learn to get rid of that anger.
"It teaches them how to regulate their emotions as well."
Making a difference
Mr O’Malley says it's been fantastic to see the difference the therapy has been making for Riley.
"He comes out and he's reluctant to speak. He will just do sign language," Mr O'Malley said.
"Within five to 10 minutes, he's just chatting away, talking to the horses, talking to the staff and he's talking to other clients, which is huge for him."
The O'Malleys were also instrumental in helping to build a case to prove the benefits of equine therapy.
Mr O'Malley said that, as an NDIS provider, the experience made him feel frustrated that these types of funding issues arose.
"It's a catch-22 where they're recognising the business but not the activity," he said.
Ms Delaforce says Riley continues to see the benefits of his therapy. She hopes her experience will inspire other families to fight funding issues.
"To be able to get him away from device time and get him out into the real world achieving real-world goals is amazing," she said.