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An occupational therapist in Northern Ireland has used a novel method to help disabled children overcome serious mental disabilities - a horse.
Occupational therapist Clare McMonagle has introduced the treatment at Gortilea social farm in Claudy, County Londonderry, the Irish News reports.
Among those who have benefited from the novel approach - the only use of 'hippotherapy' in Northern Ireland - is five-year-old Maisie Colhoun, who has Downs Syndrome.
Before meeting Smokey the pony, she could hardly walk and could not sit up properly due to the poor muscle tone she experiences, which is exacerbated by heart problems that have required two operations.
However, she has enjoyed a major improvement in physical capacity due to the repetition of regular horse riding lessons on Smokey, developing a close bond with the animal in the process. Maisie is now close to being able to walk unaided.
Ms McMonagle said the horse was the "best therapy tool" she has ever used.
She commented: "The beauty of it is that children like Maisie are so engaged that they don't see it as therapy, they see it as play.
"We had a wee eight-year-old boy with autism recently who was completely non-verbal - he spoke his first words a few weeks ago."
Although the use of a horse in occupational therapy is unusual, there are many other cases where animals have played a positive role.
In north Wales, a border collie called Twix has been helping anxious patients at Glan Clwyd Hospital’s Ablett Psychiatric Unit to overcome their fears and open up.
Occupational therapist at the hospital Mandy Richards told the Rhyl, Prestatyn and Abergele Journal Twix is "a special dog who is very sensitive to patients who are uncommunicative".
The dog is brought to the hospital once a week by her owner Sally Moorcroft to take part in therapy sessions. Ms Moorcroft noted that like other therapy dogs, Twix can help the release of endorphins and lowering of blood pressure through physical contact.
Written by Alex Franklin Stortford
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