Vaulting surcingle for mini pony? Other suggestions?
Long story short, my 1 year old son has average mental capacity but very delayed motor skills due to orthopedic factors. He currently receives PT and OT both once/week and takes swim lessons. The doctors have given us their blessing to do whatever it takes to strengthen him at this point. I am accepting of the fact that it will never be in his best interest to gallop or jump, but even his therapists agree that hippo therapy will be beneficial. Since he is so young, and the local programs don't normally accept children of his age, I have found a licensed hippotherapist to do private instruction on our own mini pony at home. I was eyeing this up for the sessions: http://www.nationalbridle.com/product-p/1-7403.htm
But was worried the handle might be a little too flimsy. Does anyone know where to get a proper single-handled surcingle small enough to fit a mini pony?
And does anyone have any other suggestions of things I might want to purchase since we are working with such a small child/pony at our own farm?
Obviously a helmet! And I believe the therapist will bring much of her own stuff that doesn't need to be size specific for mini and mini
Thanks in advance for any other suggestions that someone may have.
I used to work at a hippotherapy/therapeutic riding center. For hippotherapy we used regular training/longeing surcingles with fleece covers (with the fleece on the top side for the child's comfort) and fleecy western-style pads like this and then strapped whatever accessories the therapist needed (foam supports for the child, handles -- which someone made custom for us out of webbing sewn inside vinyl tubing) to the d-rings on the surcingle.
Good vaulting surcingles for small horses/ponies are hard (i.m.e. impossible) to find! The option posted by 2tempe is a design similar to a type of surcingle we had at our center, but we used this style for some TR riders more than little HT kids with less support/control/balance -- the hard plastic is uncomfortable if the child falls/slumps forward and it gets in the way of some of the things our therapists did (e.g. child on hands and knees on horse's back). Has your therapist made any specific recommendations w.r.t. style of surcingle? If you really want a nice vaulting-style surcingle to fit you'll probably have to find a saddler willing to make it or a tack repair guy who can put a nice, solid leather handle on an existing surcingle.
Pony-length surcingle girths are also impossible to find. I once had someone bring me back a few of these from this ponies-only tack shop in the UK because I couldn't find any other options.
You're probably going to have a hard time finding an ASTM/SEI certified helmet small enough too. If they're not snug and the child's head moves around a lot, the helmet can flop around and cover their eyes -- which has got to be frustrating for the child! If you do find a riding helmet small enough, I'd recommend a detachable visor or no visor so it won't interfere with any position the therapist may put the child in. For the itty bitty toddlers we used pediatric soft helmets like these. Not equestrian-certified but better than nothing!
The other equipment you use will probably depend on your therapist and what therapy they deem appropriate for your child. One thing we used for the vast majority of the little ones we worked with was a "Boppy" pillow (a c-shaped pillow made for breastfeeding). It could be positioned in front of the child to help them support themselves in an upright sitting position or behind the child to allow them to rest prone, and in a number of other ways. Might be worth asking your therapist if they think it's worth investing in one to have in your "HT tack trunk".
You shouldn't need too much other specialized gear other than what your therapist brings -- depending on how the therapist wants the horse to be handled you'll probably just need your halter and lead and maybe a crop (depending on the pony!).
Good luck with this and good for you for making it happen! I've been incredibly impressed with the progress I witnessed in our HT kids and hope your son gets strong and has fun with it!
Wearing my "PATH-certified Advanced Instructor" hat, I would caution you - seriously - about having a child that young start hippotherapy on a pony that small. There are a lot of really good reasons why most PATH centers don't start kids in hippotherapy until they're 3 - I bet you've heard them, if you're heading in a different direction rather than waiting. But really, the 3 year olds I see are usually BARELY ready for hippotherapy and I often think they'd be better off if they waited another year or two. Simply the size of the child relative to the horse and the amount of movement the horse provides to the child - it's really easy to slip past the point of doing some good and quickly turn it into an activity that can do some harm. Your mini pony, I would imagine, has a short choppy and possibly bouncy walk. That kind of walk is a challenge for a typically developing kindergartener, so for a child with (what sounds like?) a fairly significant physical disability that's not the movement you want. You also need an equine that will move slowly into walk and back to halt, and who will stand like a statue with many adults clustered around it while the squirming bundle on top is repositioned. Sidewalking next to a mini is going to be a bit of a trick for anyone taller than 5'! Will you have 3 competent adults besides your therapist every single time you work together? because you need a capable horse leader, two sidewalkers, and the ability for the therapist to step away and view the team from a distance. I'm trying to imagine how your leader and sidewalker will feel being that close together, with such a tiny pony!
I apologise if you read this as all negative, because what I really want to say is "wait, please wait, if you can!" At least another year. I realize you want your son to have every opportunity to make as much progress as he can, but all the work involved in making this happen for perhaps ten minutes on the horse... the 3-year-olds we work with in hippotherapy struggle to make 20-30 minutes by the end of 10 weeks, and many of their families do a season then decide to wait another year. Spend this next year getting your mini totally, completely used to all the crazy stuff you might ever want to do in hippotherapy with your son. Round up friends' kids, your older kids if you have any, and your therapist and put the time into creating the pony you'll need for your son in the future. They're not born that way! they take more work than you'd think to specialize a nice pony into a totally awesome pony for a kid with a disability. Our hippotherapy horses are the most experienced horses in our program, not the newest, and usually have several years of therapeutic riding under their belt before they work with the most involved riders. Practice, practice, practice with sidewalkers bumping the pony's sides and leaning over it. Practice with a typically developing older kid and the boppies (please!). Potentially, have your pony trained to drive so you can long line and get the leader out of the way of the sidewalkers (this assumes you will have a horse handler who's experienced in long lining).
Potentially useful information: We HATE our Aegis xtra small helmets. They never fit anyone. We love our DelMars, available from Dover. I still doubt it would fit a 1-year-old, but you might order one and decide that at the point that the helmet fits your son properly, that's the point you start riding. If you absolutely can't wait that long, please use foam helmet pads (or a maxipad!) to custom fit the helmet rather than stuffing it over a hoodie or hat. We don't allow anyone to ride in the soft-type helmets. If they're too small for the smallest helmet, they wait til it fits.
Skip the surcingle idea, for a whole bunch of reasons I can explain if you want. Find a bareback pad that fits your pony well and safely, with a girth that has a buckle with holes (no slidey things). Put the bareback pad directly onto the pony, no extra pads to promote slipping or give you a falsely tight girth. Have a boppy (or two) handy and a stack of towels of various sizes. That's all your therapist should need for equipment, really, for a wee one. Toys, maybe, but really, the 3-year-olds have to work so hard to just sit up and ride that we don't do a lot with toys at first. Music is nice, if your son likes music.
I realize you want to get him started in whatever you can do, but the payoff will be so much greater if you take your time with this. Best wishes with whatever you decide!
Thank you for the suggestions! We do the reverse boppy all the time at home for supported sitting, so I can definitely have a separate cover just for taking it to the barn. He's not going to start until the spring when it warms up, so I'm sure I'll have some conversations with the therapist prior to that about what we'll need, etc. I think it may be harder to do sessions on a mini, but that's what we have, an old leadline champ! Although I did sit him on my OTTB just standing in the aisle one day and he got a huge grin and reached to pet her mane. I think I kind of have the lines crossed in my head between getting prepared for the ususal leadliner vs. therapeutic riding though. I still like the idea of the bareback pad with pony girth for him to sit on though, so I'll just go with that for now.
ETA: Well there you go then, it WILL be harder to do on a mini! And I don't begrudge your opinion at all betsyk, it is exactly the type of thing I need to know since I am more used to the typical 18 m.o. leadliner drill. However, I do want to point out that my son is not technically "disabled", which may make a difference. He was born with club feet, which is now corrected, but caused delays in his gross motor skills because of the casts and bracing he went through. He is also a little person, which intrinsically carries possible gross & fine motor skill delays, but now that he's in weekly OT & PT and swimming lessons, the doctor expects he will catch up. I don't have a problem waiting on the riding if necessary, since the pony has a cart for Mommy to drive anyway
I know what you mean about having to adjust your thinking from "what I'd do with a little kid heading for leadline" and "what this little guy needs to get from hippotherapy." Your therapist, especially if they're really good, is going to watch your son with a completely different eye. The whole point is for the horse to provide a really specific input to your child's body, and for your child's body to work with that input to learn what it's supposed to learn. It has nothing to do with riding the horse, really! The horse is a big fuzzy therapy tool. A really good hippotherapy provider with a really good horse might ask the leader to do something really subtle - "shift his poll a little to the right and position him a little left to get him off his left shoulder and straighten him a little around this turn" or "increase the pace about 10% for 5 strides then coast back to this pace" because they want the horse to create a particular effect in the rider. It's way cool. It takes years to get good at it, for both the therapist and the horse. We joked last fall that the better we got, the less we had to stop to reposition the rider because they weren't becoming off balance or crooked, but then we had to learn to recognize fatigue in a different way because all of a sudden our riders were going longer without a break and getting tired from doing it right! I'm loving being involved in hippotherapy again after many years of teaching therapeutic riding (group riding skills lessons) and it is a whole different world. But, I also see how much there is to learn to really do it well.
Spend the winter getting your pony to lead as straight as possible through his body (you want equal input for right and left sides), bending correctly on turns, keeping his little head in the middle of his little chest (make sure your horse handler knows how to lead him correctly and doesn't pull him around corners!), and cultivate a slow, rhythmic walk with long smooth steps. Teach him to step smoothly into a walk from a halt and back to halt, smoothly, rather than with a leap or a screeching halt. Make absolutely sure he will stand without fidgeting for a LONG time. Teach him to halt square as if he were doing showmanship - this will be key to figuring out if your child is in the middle or getting off center and your pony will be asked to halt square and stay standing square for several minutes at a time, sometimes. You can't expect anyone to get any benefit from riding a crooked horse, or a straight horse led crookedly. Manage any arthritis or tendency toward laminitis aggressively. Your hippotherapy pony needs to be sounder than your own show horse. Peggy Cummings-style groundwork is really great for hippotherapy horses.