Focus Hippotherapy

Horseback therapy strengthens physical, emotional needs

BERLIN CENTER — Tina Saunders of Austintown takes her daughter Liliana, 2 1/2, to a farm in Berlin Center for Focus Hippotherapy, a horseback riding program that builds muscles and coordination in children and adults with special needs.

Liliana was referred to Focus Hippotherapy by the Mahoning Country “Help Me Grow” early intervention program.

“We trusted our therapist who told us about it in May 2022,”Saunders said.

Liliana, who has Down syndrome, was a little fearful and cried when first separated from her mother, but it didn’t last long. Since then, Liliana has progressed with her muscle coordination.

“When she started, Liliana was unable to walk, but over time, we saw improvement and after participating in the program, now she can,” Saunders said. “It’s been a really great experience and I’m glad we were able to come here.”

The mission of Focus Hippotherapy is to offer therapy from licensed physical and occupational therapists using the horse as a tool to develop strength, balance, posture, muscle tone, motor planning, body awareness, task focus and confidence. Therapists note that there also are social and emotional benefits working with horses.

According to therapists, the warmth and shape of the horse and its rhythmic, three-dimensional movement along with the rider’s interactions with the horse and responses to the movement of the horse can improve the flexibility, posture, balance and mobility of the rider. It works with speech therapy as well. Riders learn to give commands to the horse and to speak with the therapist.


Also referred to as “equine therapy,” Focus Hippotherapy has served the tri-county area for more than 20 years working with children, youth and adults with special needs.

Founder Dawn Speece took a course in focus hippotherapy (“hippos” is the ancient Greek word for “horse”) 36 years ago and found out that she did not know enough about horses, so she and her three daughters became involved in 4-H.

“I learned more about horses but am still learning because it is a lifelong process,” Speece said.

She then printed a flyer, got the word out, and began the hippotherapy with eight clients. Today they have 32.

Felicia Reed, of North Jackson, 31, who has cerebral palsy and scoliosis, has been riding since she was 3 years old and helped start the program. Felicia comes once per week, and more often if there is a cancellation.

“The best thing about this therapy is being with the horses and feeling free,” Reed said. “You don’t have restrictions on a horse.”

Speece said, “Hippotherapy is an opportunity to build strength, balance and flexibility, while there are also social and emotional benefits.”

Dawnelle Jewell, from Hartford, has served as a physical therapist at Focus Hippotherapy for four years. She knew Speece when both worked at Leonard Kirtz School in Austintown for students with developmental disabilities. After hearing about the equine therapy, Jewell wanted to bring her students, so Speece organized a field trip for the children.

“I was so excited about what some of the children were able to do after just one session,” Jewell said. “It’s therapy, but it’s more. Things happen during horseback riding that don’t always happen in physical therapy.”

Lifelong horse lover and retired licensed social worker Mary Caye Bixler of Salem has volunteer at Hippotherapy for five years.

“It is making a tremendous difference in the lives of children and adults with special challenges. There are advantages which come from horseback riding, like being outdoors and being around horses,” Bixler said. “The horses have an emotional connection and interaction with the riders and really respond to the children and adults.”


During their time in the ring, each horseback rider is supported by a physical therapist, a side walker and a person leading the horse. Riding sessions are held over the summer (June and July) and in the fall (September, October and November).

“We are full every season,” Speece said.

Some clients have half-hour slots while some have an hour, depending on each person’s diagnosis and physical therapy goals.

For example, in the program which serves autistic children, they begin with a half-hour slot for riding and then as they get older, move into the one-hour slot. A therapy evaluation is done with clients to determine if they can advance.


An important part to the success of the program is having horses that are specially gifted and trained to work with special needs children and adults. Speece had seven horses when she started and has three now. She said that she and her family are very particular when choosing horses.

“They have to have appropriate characteristics and behavior in order to perform the work safely,” Speece said. “My horses are easy to work with because they’re so well trained, well cared for and well loved. Because of that, the caregivers have confidence in letting their children and adults participate.”

They are in need of a horse but Speece is quick to add, “it must be the right one. It needs to want to be a therapy horse and be able to walk, trot and canter and love people. We can usually make that happen.”


The cost of the hippotherapy is $30 per session, but donors help cover shortfalls for those in need.

The farm on South Duck Creek Road where the hippotherapy takes place, is leased from Speece’s daughter. It consists of a barn, ring and storage shed. The upkeep and improvement of the area is covered by the client fee.

Speece offers field trips for disabled children and adults which teaches them how to care for horses. She also has a working relationship with the Youngstown State University football team, whose members come out and volunteer with whatever needs to be done in the summer.

Speece works closely with the physical therapy program at YSU on case studies and research involving hippotherapy. She points out that she offers a therapeutic riding program, as opposed to a recreation based riding program.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *


Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today