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Gohmert visits equestrian therapeutic center, considers backing medical insurance bill

By Glenn Evans
Aug. 25, 2013 at 11 p.m.

DIANA - A U.S. congressman saw evidence last week that the back of a walking horse delivers physical, occupational and other therapies better than an air-filled exercise ball.

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert also learned that insurance will pay for the balancing ball but not the horseback workouts called hippotherapy.

"It makes sense, now that I've seen it," Gohmert said after watching a horse and rider wired with electrodes that captured the interplay of muscles of both. "This trains a body to do movements it wouldn't do in an ordinary physical therapy session."

Gohmert, R-Tyler, had been invited to Windridge Equestrian Therapeutic Center of East Texas to see research that hippotherapy centers across the country are waiting to see.

"Windridge is researching the benefits of working with an experienced horse handler to get the maximum benefit from therapeutic horsemanship," the CEO of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International wrote Gohmert in a letter from PATH dated Tuesday. "Which is another validation of the importance of PATH International centers."

Path Chief Executive Officer Kay Marsh Green wrote that 177 of the international organization's 842 centers practice hippotherapy, which is distinguished from simple horse therapy by the intense training the horses and therapists undergo.

Cameron Nutt, an engineer with South Carolina-based Orbis Inc., has been at the horse therapy center outside Diana since late last year working on the groundbreaking research.

He and Windridge Director Margo Dewkett told the congressman they hope to bridge the gap between myriad of parents and riders who rave about new abilities that surface after riding and insurance companies which consider the therapy experimental.

"The horse is a powerful animal," Nutt said, his South African accent evident. "When the horse moves, the client's or subject's body moves with it. And if you can control that movement by controlling the horse, you can translate that movement to the rider."

That is, the movement of the horse's muscles stimulates muscle groups the rider cannot command because of cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy or some other neurological disorder.

Dewkett invited Gohmert to Windridge in hopes he will throw his support behind House Resolution 1705.

Authored by fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess of Lewisville, the measure would add hippotherapy to treatments covered under Tri-Care military medical insurance. Burgess, a medical doctor, wrote the resolution after meeting a Navy captain who pays for his daughter's horseback therapy.

Also called the Rehabilitative Therapy Parity for Military Beneficiaries Act, Burgess' resolution was referred in May to the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

There have been no major votes taken, and Gohmert on Wednesday was not yet ready to endorse it - but, he wasn't saying neigh, either.

"I've got to read the bill," he said. "But, it certainly sounds like something I could co-sponsor."

The research Gohmert observed, with a wired-up horse and rider walking a treadmill, could boost the bill's chances of becoming law.

Images the electrodes capture are displayed on a computer screen using technology that's probably most widely known from Hollywood movies that convert a live actor into a semi-animated one. The character of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy was created with the same science.

"This is the first time that software has been developed for anything like this," Dewkett told Gohmert during the demonstration.

Physical therapist Celia Bower, who brings young riders to Windridge from the KidsFirst Therapy center she co-founded in Longview, said Windridge is trying to quantify a link that has benefited her clients.

"It really is just another way that therapists can work toward a person's goals," she told Gohmert. "It's more natural and connected to our brain than using a ball. Our bodies respond best to natural movement."

Both hippotherapists and the horses are highly trained to communicate with each other during a session.

"It really is like a weight machine," Bower said. "I can take on a little bit of 'weight.' I can take on a little less weight."

Dewkett added no one has been able to duplicate the live horse effect with a mechanical device.

Nutt spent the spring establishing baseline data, quantifying the physical interaction between a horse and any rider, disabled or not. The next step, he said, is a formal treatment study on clients that could begin in October.

The results of that study will be published for peer review, which Nutt and Dewkett expect will establish scientifically the benefits of the therapy. Dewkett said a Virginia doctor who works with the Wounded Warriors rehabilitation program for returning veterans is following the research in Texas.

Gohmert was becoming convinced of the therapy's promise by the end of the demonstration.

"I can see how it's extraordinarily more helpful for a child that doesn't have any muscle control," he said. "More so than sitting on an air-filled ball. It's just a matter of getting the documentation."



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