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Recent Physical Therapy Graduate Completes Unique Clinical Experience in Hippotherapy

Barbara Parks, PT student, with horse and child during therapy session

Recent graduate of Belmont’s physical therapy program Barbara Parks recently completed a unique clinical experience. With a life-long love for horses, Parks began volunteering at a PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International Premier Accredited Center after finishing her undergraduate degree. It was that opportunity that sparked her interest in physical therapy.

“I went there to be around the horses, but once I started to get to know the kids and saw the incredible impact the horses had on them, I was hooked,” she said. “I saw children speak their first words and take their first steps after hippotherapy sessions. Hippotherapy is what made me decide to go back to school to become a physical therapist.”

Parks has been volunteering at Saddle Up!, a local hippotherapy facility, since she started PT school at Belmont. Hippotherapy is physical, occupational or speech therapy utilizing the movement of the horse as a treatment strategy. She completed her PATH therapeutic riding instructor training at Saddle Up! and worked as a substitute instructor during her 3rd year at Belmont. Thanks to Associate Professor of Physical Therapy & Director of Clinical Education Gail Bursch, a unique clinical experience was created for Parks to follow her dream.

Knowing she wanted a clinical experience in hippotherapy, Parks partnered with Bursch to create an opportunity that would fulfill the requirements of a PT clinical site. Since Saddle Up! does not currently provide PT every day, Parks split her time between the organization and a second facility.

“I absolutely love Saddle Up! so I was thrilled to be able to do my final clinical rotation here,” Parks said. “PT with hippotherapy is a totally different beast because you are not only working with your client, but you have a horse, horse handler and multiple volunteers to worry about simultaneously.”

In addition to working alongside children, Parks was able to focus her attention on learning how to rehabilitate her horses, too. While at Belmont, she discovered the Certified Equine Rehabilitation Practitioner program offered through the veterinary school at UT Knoxville which certifies physical therapists and assistants, veterinarians and veterinarian technicians to apply PT principles to horses. The course consisted of a 60-hour online portion and a week-long, in-person lab at UT Knoxville’s campus.

This year, only 20 professionals will earn the Equine Rehabilitation Certification, and Parks said she is thrilled to be among the ranks. “I hope to be able to apply what I know to help the therapy horses that we rely on so heavily for hippotherapy,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize what a hard job this is for them physically, but we need these horses to balance unsteady riders while maintaining a steady rhythm, adjust their stride length on command, bend their bodies nicely along circles and be incredibly tolerant of all the crazy things we ask our clients to do on their backs.”

Thanks to her time on site, Parks will be joining the Saddle Up! team this fall as a physical therapist.

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