Caring for those in Need

Horsepower: How a Therapeutic Equine Helped a Toddler with Spina Bifida

During a prenatal visit, expectant parents Debi and Daniel Bennis, formerly of Epping, New Hampshire, received some devastating news. Medical specialists at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, predicted their daughter Dani would be born with lower body paralysis and wouldn’t live past her ninth birthday. Fetal ultrasound and blood tests revealed Dani had Spina Bifida Meningomyelocele, an incurable neural tube defect that hinders the spinal cord.

BY Colleen Lent, M.Ed., M.S. | May 2024 | Category: Mobility

Horsepower: How a Therapeutic Equine Helped a Toddler with Spina Bifida

As a result, Dani underwent six emergency surgeries within the first week of her life, the precursor to 24 additional operations before she turned 21. Bandages and tubes often photobombed her baby pictures. Meanwhile, white sterile walls acted as the visual backdrop.

When a physical therapist at the Richie McFarland Children’s Center, formerly of Stratham, New Hampshire, said 2-year-old Dani needed occupational and physical therapy, her parents sought an alternate route to give their toddler daughter a break from a traditional hospital setting. RMCC recommended consulting with Jan Danovich, a physical therapist in Danville, New Hampshire, offering therapeutic horseback riding and hippotherapy to help Dani with her physiological and social emotional learning goals.

Weighing less than 30 pounds, Dani’s parents brought her to meet Jan and her horse Diablo, whose massive head was level with the eyes of supervising adults. Debi chuckles when she reflects on her daughter’s initial reaction to Diablo, tipping the scales at nearly half a ton. “She was scared, but I didn’t blame her,” Debi says. “She was 22 months, and he was 26 years old and so big!” Eventually, Dani discovered, despite her new four-legged acquaintance having a name meaning “devil” in Spanish, that he acted as an accommodating gentle giant. Now 31, Dani gives advice to other people considering equine-assisted activities. “Horses may seem scary because of their size, but I promise you, once you get to know them, they are the nicest creatures ever,” she says. 

Karen Kersting, the executive director of the nonprofit organization UpReach Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Goffstown, New Hampshire, says it’s common for some children to feel angst when meeting a therapy equine for the first time. As a member of PATH International or the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, Karen says reputable equine-assisted therapy organizations carefully screen and train horses to ensure they have the right temperament and physical traits to work with individuals with disabilities. For example, horse candidates need to react calmly when exposed to adaptive equipment that includes lifts and wheelchairs, sudden and loud noises, and unbalanced riders. “Not all horses are meant to do this work,” Karen says. She recommends that families and caretakers contemplating equine-assisted therapy ask service providers to discuss their protocols for evaluating horses for safety reasons.

Dani talked with Diablo, brushed his soft coat, and fed him crunchy apples. She felt her nervousness subside. During their second meeting, Dani was ready to begin exercises to improve her range of motion skills and strengthen her core muscles. At first, Dani was encouraged to touch Diablo as he walked, allowing her to feel the multidirectional movements of his gait. Always flanked by one of her parents and Jan on opposite sides, Dani eventually practiced sitting upright and holding the reins atop her strolling equine buddy. She gradually improved her balance. Dani used her newfound skills to complete daily living tasks and enjoy recreational activities, including unloading the silverware from the dishwasher and taking pottery classes. Equipped with confidence, Dani later earned medals for New Hampshire Special Olympics track and field events and competed in the Winners on Wheels program at the University of New Hampshire. Dani also bundled up for winter camping excursions and tobogganing with the Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains. Sometimes, she’d pause from her whirlwind of activities to share anecdotes about one of her beloved childhood coaches – Diablo.

Often people take routine abilities and skills for granted, not realizing how important they are for physical and mental health, according to Karen from UpReach. Children with disabilities frequently need extra support to gain independence with daily living tasks at home and at school. For example, learning to maintain a good posture allows individuals to breathe easier, as their lungs fully expand and take in more oxygen. In addition, more controlled breathing assists with calming down during stressful situations, including physical exams that are common with individuals with disabilities. Karen adds that slouching can adversely affect digestion, as stomach acids are forced to move in the wrong direction. “When you sit up straight, you digest food better and breathe better,” she says. With a shortened trunk due to Spina Bifida, maintaining an ideal posture was initially difficult for Dani, but her therapy sessions with Diablo made the feat easier.

Dani talks about another unexpected benefit of working with Diablo. She enjoyed the sensory delights of being outdoors that included watching butterflies flutter, smelling sweet clover, hearing the rustling of tree leaves, and feeling the sun on her cheeks. “Being in nature definitely makes you feel better mentally,” Dani says. Her mother Debi recalls Diablo’s tail hanging loose and straight or gently fanning back and forth, one telltale sign he was enjoying his leisurely stroll with his tiny companion straddling his withers. Meanwhile, her daughter was working on her physical and occupational therapy goals without perceiving the sessions as work. 

Karen echoes Dani’s sentiments about the psychological benefits of receiving therapy beyond the confines of a brick-and-mortar facility. “It engages them outside of their normal environment,” Karen says. “It reduces isolation.” Participants have an opportunity to interact with therapy staff, horses, and other individuals receiving therapy, in a casual setting. She adds that transferring from a wheelchair to the back of a horse empowers the rider. “The thing that defines you disappears when you’re on a horse,” she says. Suddenly, the child is also the tallest person in the group. As the endorphins flow, the elevation becomes both literal and figurative. “We need to remember that joy and wellness are very important pieces of who we are,” Karen says.

Reflecting on her horseback rides atop Diablo, Dani says that the experience was a great equalizer. “I felt like I was a normal girl who could do things that other people who aren’t disabled could do.”

While the rewards of equine therapy have been documented since Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician often hailed as the father of medicine, Karen says it’s often a misunderstood form of treatment. “It’s more than a pony ride at the county fair,” she says. Parents and caretakers considering this therapy path need to think about specific goals, consult medical professionals, and check the qualifications of service providers. Karen explains that sound equine therapists are trained to look through an equine and disability lens, anticipating all scenarios and contraindications or risks.

When Dani looks at photos of her three therapy summers with Diablo, she says her fondest memory was simply chatting with her enormous friend. “I would just pet and talk with him,” she says. “It seemed like he understood me. It made me feel happy inside.” 


As an educator and journalist, Colleen Lent has written more than 1,000 articles and columns for publications, including the New Hampshire Journal of Education, Portsmouth Herald, Mass Nonprofit News, Worcester Magazine, Folsom Telegraph, PINE Magazine, Carriage Towne News, Macaroni KID, and Merrimack Valley Parent. She earned an excellence in teaching award from Southern New Hampshire University and a first-place health reporting award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Colleen holds a Master of Science degree in communications from Clark University and a Master of Elementary Education degree from Southern New Hampshire University. Her New Jersey favorites include EP Magazine, Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, and The Smithereens. 

Read the article here.