Healing power of animal therapy

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    A unique program enables children and adults with disabilities to seek therapy through animals.

    By Sylvie Belmond/Special to The Malibu Times

    Surrounded by supporters, Kevin, 19, was hoisted up on a horse for the first time in his life. He recoiled and grimaced, not only because he was afraid of the beast, but also because the touch and scent of the animal sent his nerve endings screaming.

    Within a few moments he calmed down, and a big smile overtook his face.

    Kevin is blind and has tactile defensiveness, a condition common among blind people that makes them extremely sensitive to touch and smell.

    But riding on the horse toned down Kevin’s unusual sensory defenses. Perched above a crowd of encouraging volunteers and guided through the new challenge of controlling and steering a horse, Kevin also gained a sense of independence.

    The teenager is part of a group of disabled children who come to Malibu once a month to visit their equine friends at Rancho Sea Air, a ranch owned by Gina Merz-McCluskey, a Malibu resident.

    Since 1999, McCluskey has made her ranch and six therapy-certified horses available to Create-A-Smile, an organization that provides free animal-assisted therapy to those who need it.

    Daniela Ortner, an experienced animal behaviorist and trainer who specializes in animal-assisted therapy, formed Create-A-Smile in 1995 because she wanted to bring volunteers, people in need and animals together in a positive way. Today, Create-A-Smile is an active national nonprofit organization that promotes the human-animal bond and its healing benefits.

    Aside from coordinating the horse-assisted therapy program in Malibu, Ortner has also enrolled the help of dolphins, dogs and cats to provide supportive therapy.

    According to Dolphin Consult Denmark, a dolphin therapy organization founded in 1997, scientific documentation has shown that exposure and interaction with dolphins can offer a variety of healing properties.

    “I worked with dolphins and autistic children in Israel and saw the effect in them,” Ortner said. “Dolphins have the innate ability to scan our bodies and know what our ‘ailment’ is. They have a sixth sense about how people feel.”

    “Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a tool that utilizes animals as catalysts to meet specific therapeutic goals,” Ortner said. “It provides psychological, physical and physiological benefits in many ways.”

    From increased ambulation to decreased blood pressure and enhanced communication skills, the benefits are notable and there are no side effects unless someone is allergic to the animals.

    For people who are paralyzed, the horse’s gait provides a sensation of autonomy because its rhythm is similar to the human step.

    But horses also have a psychological effect. Nancy Harvey came to help at the Malibu event because she benefited from animal therapy personally. This type of therapy taught her to trust again as the animals offer unconditional love, she said. “That’s why I’m here.”

    Others, like Kathy Buxton-Smith, came from Los Angeles to lend a hand, simply because they want to see a child smile.

    When people cannot go to visit the animals themselves, some animals go to them. After they are tested for their suitability, the cats and dogs are brought to an institution such as a hospital or a nursing home where they visit with patients.

    The positive distraction these animals bring to a setting, which is usually institutional and can be depressing, brightens the atmosphere and increases laughter and play among many patients. This helps to increase communication with other people and may decrease people’s feelings of isolation or alienation, according to Create-A-Smile.

    Late in September, several children from the McBride School at Cedar Sinai Pediatrics and from the Junior Blind Foundation came to attend an AAT session sponsored by Create-A-Smile in Malibu.

    “What we like to do here is to assume these children are normal,” Ortner said, as she prepared the 15 volunteers who came to lend a hand at Rancho Sea Air.

    “Sitting on and controlling a horse, we hope, will help increase their (the children’s) self-esteem and self-control,” she said.

    Indeed, even as many of the children were reluctant to get on a horse at first, they quickly relaxed once the horse started to walk amidst a group of volunteers who were attentively encouraging the riders. By the time they were prompted to unsaddle, most of the children uncovered a big smile, thus Create-A-Smile had achieved its goal once more.