For over 20 years I have been providing animal therapy to children with special needs. Horseback riding was used to help develop motor skills and to stimulate the vestibular system. In addition to the traditional riding therapy, I used this activity to facilitate receptive and expressive language skills.
In the early 90′s, I took the time to write a masters thesis on animal therapy. Even though I am one of those who wrote a thesis except for the last two chapters, I found the research not only enlightening, but a stepping block for my next adventure. It was then I read about Larry the llama, a mascot at a prison. I became obsessed with finding a llama. Also, I wrote an article on animal therapy that was published in the Cat Fancier Association 1996 so I felt my writing of my thesis, although not complete, had a purpose.
I developed a not-for-profit animal therapy program serving primarily preschool children. A contract with the State of Illinois to conduct developmental therapy for children birth to three (my youngest student was 6 months) was my primary focus. But, I also had farm visits, educational events, and occasional therapy of older children . Another group that was targeted was troubled youth. Their participation on the farm facilitated self esteem, confidence and pride. My animal population expanded from just horses and cats to using pygmy goats, a kangaroo, a wallaby, a sheep, a miniature donkey, ducks, ferrets, a deer, and lastly llamas. I incorporated animal caring activities with therapy activities to promote language skills, motor skills, academic skills, and sensory integration. Not only was this successful in obtaining the educational goals for the children, but it promoted parent involvement including the dads.
I found llamas to be my favorite animal to use with the children. Llamas were gentle, did not bite or kick. They were responsive and curious about the children and were interactive. The tactile touch of the wool, feeding the llama either by hand or holding onto a bowl, counting out the treats, choosing a specific color bowl to feed a llama, imitating the humming, calling the name of a llama, brushing the llama with one or two hands, identifying body parts, following commands, walking up the steps on the stool to brush the llama, carrying flakes of hay, and even riding the llama were only some of the activities we engaged in.
After 5 years of operation I closed the program and focused on having only a llama farm. Still in my heart I wanted to help children. In 2005, I became a 4 H leader and had a group of children that came to my farm. These children have different needs than the group I used to work with, but aren’t all children special! All children have special needs!